By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — After breaking Sunday for its weekly day of rest, the University of Virginia football team will reconvene Monday for meetings and practice.
The sting of UVA’s latest loss may have faded some by then. Late Saturday afternoon, though, the Cavaliers’ pain was still fresh after they fell 13-10 to the Connecticut Huskies at Rentschler Field.
“There’s nothing that hurts more than just losing like that at the end of the game,” running back Albert Reid said, “especially when you’re [leading] basically the whole game, till the end.”
After the best game of his college career, junior defensive end Andrew Brown shared Reid’s frustration.
“We are so close, man, we’ve just got to get over the edge,” said Brown, who had 3.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, recovered a fumble and broke up a pass.
“We’ve got to get over the hump. It’s going to come, though, it’s going to happen. We’ve just got to keep having faith, keep trusting in the process, keep pushing.”
Reid, a senior, scored on a 9-yard run to put the Wahoos up 9-0 with 12:42 left in the second quarter, and sophomore walk-on Alex Furbank, playing in his first-ever football game, added the extra point to make it 10-0.
Furbank had opened the scoring Saturday with a 23-yard field goal that gave Virginia (0-3) its first lead of the season. But the game did not end happily for the transfer from Randolph-Macon College, where Furbank was on the soccer team.
On the final play of the game, he pulled a 20-yard field-goal attempt wide left, sealing the Cavaliers’ 17th straight road loss.
“I know I rushed the kick a little bit, and that’s 100 percent on me,” Furbank said. “Everybody has been really supportive of me. Our team’s a family. We’ve practiced pressure kicks. It’s not something I wasn’t prepared for. It just didn’t happen.”
Inside linebacker Zach Bradshaw, the long-snapper on field goals, stressed that Furbank’s miss was “not what lost us the game. We had so many opportunities, both offensively and defensively.”
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall agreed.
Of the more than 135 plays in the game, Furbank’s miss was “the most visible, and there’s no way around it, and the brutal fact is he’ll have a hard time moving past this until he does something stronger,” Mendenhall said. “But we had plenty of chances today. His was just the most visible.”
Indeed, offensive coordinator Robert Anae said, “I believe if we’re better on offense, we win this game hands down.
One of the Cavaliers’ many missed opportunities came on their penultimate possession. On fourth-and-1 from the UConn 24-yard line, with about 5:00 remaining, Reid took a handoff from quarterback Kurt Benkert and was stopped for no gain.
The Huskes then embarked on a possession that ended with Bobby Puyol’s 43-yard field goal at the 1:33 mark. Twice the drive was extended when Virginia was called for a penalty on a third-down incompletion.
Benkert, who struggled for most of the second half, had two huge completions on the Wahoos’ final drive, which started at their 25-yard line. On the first, Benkert teamed with junior wide receiver Doni Dowling on a 32-yard gain to the UConn 43. The second came on fourth-and-10 from the 43. Benkert floated a gorgeous pass down the seam to senior wideout Keeon Johnson, whose 34-yard reception set up first-and-goal from the 9 with about 35 seconds left.
Virginia, with no timeouts left, did not attempt another pass. Anae called for a first-down running play, and Reid rumbled for a 3-yard gain. On second down, Benkert spiked the ball, stopping the clock with 27 seconds to play. On third down, hoping to catch the Huskies off guard, Anae called for another run. But UConn defended the play well and stopped Benkert after a 2-yard gain.
“Clearly, in hindsight that was a bad call,” Anae said, “to call a quarterback draw … That was my call, and it did not work.”
The field-goal unit sprinted onto the field, and and Bradshaw snapped the ball back to holder Matt Johns with about two seconds remaining.
Furbank had performed well in practice leading up the game — “I don’t remember him missing a kick all week,” Mendenhall said — but a storybook ending eluded him Saturday.
Special-teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga was among those who consoled Furbank after the game.
“I told him, `Hey, it’s not one play that made that game. There’s a lot of other plays that could have been made in that game and decided the outcome of that game,’ ” Poppinga said. “But it’s something to learn from, and the next time he’s in that situation he’s going to make it.”
Furbank said: “I just have to come back stronger. The team’s been great supporting me. I’ve got to get to work next week. We’re going to win games. We’re going to be fine, but for right now it’s really tough.”
After giving up 81 points and 1,156 yards in losses to Richmond and Oregon, Virginia showed dramatic improvement on defense against UConn. The `Hoos limited the Huskies to two fields and one touchdown and surrendered only 277 yards.
Mendenhall, who also serves as defensive coordinator, cited the hard work of his charges, many of whom are underclassmen.
Significant progress requires “time, in addition to work ethic, in addition to youth maturing,” Mendenhall said. “If they keep working diligently the way they are, they’ll keep getting better, and it was fun for me to be with them watching them have that kind of improvement, just like it would be with one of your kids, watching them work hard. And that’s going to have to carry us. The simple successes of the team right now, I’m not letting them come and go without celebrating those.
“There’s not anyone in here that wants to win more than me, but I’m not going to let the improvements go unnoticed.”
Safety Quin Blanding, a junior, and inside linebacker Micah Kiser, a redshirt junior, had 11 tackles each for Virginia. Bradshaw and outside linebacker Chris Peace had seven stops apiece. For Peace, a redshirt sophomore, that was a career high.
Virginia, which entered the game with no takeaways, forced two turnovers Saturday. Sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the third quarter. Early in the final period, with UConn again in scoring position, Brown recovered a fumble at the UVA 26.
“I’d like to commend our defense and our special teams for making huge, huge improvements in the course of a week,” Anae said. “We did not make that jump on the offensive side.”
The Cavaliers converted only 5 of 16 third-down opportunities. Reid rushed for 73 yards, and senior Taquan Mizzell ran for 66, but Benkert, after completing 15 of his first 19 attempts, finished a pedestrian 23 of 42, for 241 yards. Virginia turned the ball over only once, but Benkert’s interception came on the first play after Brown’s fumble recovery and set up the Huskies’ lone touchdown drive.
“We are not accustomed to executing in all four quarters, and it showed today,” Anae said.
Benkert blamed poor execution for the offense’s second-half struggles.
“We weren’t as good on first and second down as we were in the first half, and just kind of got behind the chains a little bit,” he said. “It’s hard as an offensive coordinator to move the ball when it’s third-and-10 or whatever it is. We didn’t help him out in those situations, and we’ve just got to be better on first and second down.”
For the Cavaliers “to progress as a team,” Anae said, “[the offense has] got to stretch the field in the passing game. We are not going to get better until that gets better.”
Benkert, who’s right-handed, injured his left shoulder when he was sacked early in the fourth quarter. But he played through the pain — his left arm was in a sling after the game — and connected on critical throws on Virginia’s final drive.
“That guy, he is tough,” Mendenhall said. “He was hurting and hurting bad, and stood in there and delivered, gave us a chance to win the game. I like him a lot.”
This is Mendenhall’s first year at UVA, which has finished below .500 in seven of the past eight seasons, and he likes his new team, too.
“They fought hard from beginning to end, and I think they took a step forward again, from Week 1 to Week 2, Week 2 to Week 3,” Mendenhall said.
The loss hurts, Bradshaw said, but the Cavaliers are “battling and trying to stay positive. You just have to see the big picture, where it’s going to help us long term.”
Reid said: “It’s always tough when you fight the whole game and you don’t come out on top. That’s always going to be tough. But that’s life. There are times you may go up against an obstacle where you’re fighting the whole time but you don’t win. That doesn’t mean you quit right there.”
MAKING HIS MOVE: For the third straight game, sophomores Myles Robinson and Juan Thornhill started at cornerback for Virginia, but redshirt freshman Kareem Gibson replaced Robinson in the first quarter and played regularly the rest of the way.
For the 5-11, 170-pound Gibson, it was his college debut.
“Kareem just had a great week of practice, and you might continue to see these changes all year,” Mendenhall said. “This is not [a situation] where things are just set and everything’s OK. This is development, development, development, and competition, competition, competition, and chemistry, chemistry. If a player or a person chooses to step back from his task, there’ll be someone else that wants it bad enough to step in there. Kareem just got an opportunity and made the most of it.”
UP NEXT: After two straight road games, Virginia returns home for its fourth and final non-conference test. At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, UVA (0-3) hosts Central Michigan (3-0) at Scott Stadium.
These schools have met only once in football, in the 1996 season opener, when the Cavaliers defeated the Chippewas 55-21 in Scott Stadium.
Central Michigan’s second victory this season earned national headlines and was as controversial as it was memorable. The Chippewas scored on a last-second Hail Mary — a play officials later said should not have been run — to win 30-27 at Oklahoma State last weekend. Central Michigan won 44-21 at home yesterday over UNLV.