By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, the University of Virginia football team went to work Friday morning, the offense at one end and the defense at the other.
Each unit ran through dozens of plays as preparations continued for the Cavaliers’ second straight road game, this one against the Connecticut Huskies. UVA (0-2) meets UConn (1-1) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.
Last Saturday night in Eugene, Ore., Virginia lost 44-26 to then-No. 24 Oregon and came away from Autzen Stadium with a long list of areas to address.
Among other concerns: UVA’s passing game, so productive in a season-opening loss to Richmond at Scott Stadium, struggled against the Ducks.
Some of that, Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert said, was because of poor throws he made. But his receivers didn’t distinguish themselves, either. They dropped about a half-dozen balls on a night when Benkert finished 20-for-39 passing for 193 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.
“We left a lot of yards and touchdowns on the field, especially early in the game,” wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said after practice Friday.
Hagans, a standout quarterback and wideout during his playing career at UVA, pointed to a missed opportunity on Virginia’s second possession. On third-and-8 from the Oregon 21-yard line, Benkert threw a pass that eluded the grasp of wide receiver Doni Dowling in the end zone.
“I think the game could have been a lot different if we’d scored a touchdown there,” Hagans said. “Those plays are significant, because they build confidence, and they build momentum, and especially on the road you need both of those things. We’ve got to do a better job of coming out early, establishing ourselves and making plays and giving the quarterback the comfort level to know that he can count on us in all situations.”
An inexperienced defense has given up 81 points and 1,156 yards through two games, and that group is likely to continue to have growing pains. But no matter how the defense performs, Hagans said, the “offense still has one job, and that’s to score more points than the other team.
“Our job is still the same: to score points every time we touch the ball, and if we don’t score, put our defense in a better position where the other team has to drive the length of the field. We’re all in this together.”
There were several encouraging signs for the `Hoos in Eugene. Virginia battled throughout, even when Oregon built a significant lead — a display of resolve and grit that pleased head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who said the “collective spirit of the team is growing and maturing.”
The players noticed too.
“Since I’ve been here,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Peace said, “rarely have I ever seen us [play] as hard as we did from beginning of the game all the way to the end.”
Senior punter Nicholas Conte sparkled against the Ducks, and so the did the Cavaliers’ running game. Led by senior Albert Reid, who gained a career-best 126 yards on 15 carries, the `Hoos totaled 193 yards on the ground. Against Richmond, by contrast, Virginia netted only 38 yards rushing.
“Everybody just put it together [against Oregon],” senior offensive tackle Eric Smith said. “We just trusted what we were already taught and it worked out for us.”
Mendenhall said: “We took a step closer in terms of really moving our offense forward, but there’s more still.”
For starters, Virginia’s pass protection must improve. Oregon sacked Benkert six times.
“We put it on the offensive line,” Smith said. “We go into every battle, every practice, putting things on ourselves. It was all little details that we messed up, maybe lack of focus on certain blitzes.”
Benkert wasn’t so sure.
“Some of the pressure I definitely think I created myself,” he said. “It was not entirely on the O-line. I think the biggest part of it was, once I got sacked once or twice, I was ready to just get rid of the ball so I didn’t take a sack. It wasn’t like I was worried about getting hit. It was not wanting to take a sack. There were times later in the game where I had all the time in the world and I rushed the throw because of prior plays.”
The head coach’s take?
“I think [Benkert is] an excellent passer who is making really strong choices,” Mendenhall said. “I think Kurt is one of those leaders that will shoulder as much burden as possible. So when asked in relation to sacks and everything else, it doesn’t surprise me at all if he’ll say he’s probably holding the ball too long … In my opinion he’s holding it appropriately, and our execution of the protection and routes and the entire collective of mid- to down-field routes and our pass game has to develop more. But I like what he’s doing.”
Benkert, who completed 26 of 34 attempts against Richmond, transferred to UVA from East Carolina after the 2015-16 academic year. He missed last season while recovering from a torn ACL, so his inconsistency so far is not surprising.
“I think the biggest thing that I need to focus on heading into [the UConn game] is just kind of slowing down a little bit,” said Benkert, who added that he was “not nervous, but jittery” against Oregon.
“I’ve just got to slow down a bit on my drops, let the timing develop, chemistry between me and the receivers a little bit,” he said. “There were a few times where I was just throwing a little bit too early, not letting [the receivers] really define what they were doing first.”
Senior wideout Keeon Johnson leads Virginia with 11 receptions for 86 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Olamide Zaccheaus, one of the Cavaliers’ inside receivers, has eight catches for a team-high 122 yards and one TD. Dowling, a junior, also has eight catches, for 107 yards and a TD.
“It’s hard in the offseason,” Benkert said. “You don’t really see what [receivers] can do when people are jamming them and stuff, so it’s been a lot of making up for lost time [in a short period], but each game you’re learning something new about each guy.”
Benkert’s chemistry with the 6-3, 215-pound Johnson has been especially good.
“He’s a big dude and he’s always in front of the defender,” Benkert said. “It seems like the ball is never in jeopardy when you throw it to him and he’s where he needs to be at the right time and he’s consistent.”
Johnson said: “It’s my last year … so what I just try to focus on is each day just giving it my all, no matter if I’m getting the ball or not, and whenever I get the ball I try to make the best of each play.”
Virginia hasn’t played UConn since 2008. Mendenhall, though, knows plenty about the Huskies. Mendenhall spent the past 11 seasons at BYU, which defeated UConn 35-10 in East Hartford in 2014 and 30-13 in Provo, Utah, last year.
Even so, Mendenhall said Wednesday, “I’m still becoming familiar with our team and what we’re capable of. So maybe in another situation with another team, other circumstances, having played a team two years in a row might be more of an advantage. But I think it’s mitigated just where our current level of performance is and the number of things we have to work on.”
Virginia, as has been well-chronicled, has not won a road game since Nov. 3, 2012. That’s not a statistic on which the Cavaliers dwell, but they’re more than ready for the streak to end.
“That first one’s going to feel great,” Peace said.
If the breakthrough comes Saturday, it will be at the expense of a coaching staff with multiple UVA connections. UConn head coach Bob Diaco is a former Virginia assistant. So are three of the Diaco’s assistants: co-defensive coordinators Anthony Poindexter and Vincent Brown and quarterbacks coach Wayne Lineburg.
Lineburg and Poindexter are also former UVA players. Poindexter, of course, was an All-America safety who remains an iconic figure in the annals of Virginia football. He’s also one of Hagans’ closest friendsd.
Hagans and his wife, Lauren, have two sons, the older of whom was given the middle name Dex in Poindexter’s honor.
Seeing Poindexter on the other sideline Saturday, Hagans acknowledged, will feel strange.
“But we’ll see each other before the game, and after it’s over — win, lose or draw — we’ll tell each other we love each other and wish each other luck,” Hagans said. “I’ll see his family, and then we’ll go our separate ways and play the rest of the season.”
“It’s no different than us going in the AFC and playing basketball against each other,” he said. “We love to compete. That’s what sports is. It’s all about competition, and afterwards we’ll hug each other and wish each other good luck.”