By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A palpable sense of foreboding hung over Scott Stadium for much of the second half Saturday as Central Michigan steadily erased Virginia’s once-sizable lead.
On the home sideline, head coach Bronco Mendenhall could feel it, a here-we-go-again uneasiness that all but silenced the crowd on a warm, humid fall afternoon. The Cavaliers, who led 28-0 early in the second quarter, found themselves tied 28-28 early in the fourth.
Mendenhall’s players experienced some anxiety too, but they refused to break. The Cavaliers roared back to score three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes and defeated the Chippewas 49-35.
After tying the game at 28-28, Central Michigan (3-1) didn’t score again until the game’s final minute. The Wahoos (1-3) recovered the onside-kick attempt that followed the Chippewas’ last TD, and, in victory formation, quarterback Kurt Benkert took a knee and let time run out.
The mood in Virginia’s locker room afterward, Mendenhall said, was “sheer joy.”
He was eager to celebrate the players’ accomplishment, and they were eager to celebrate his. The victory was Mendenhall’s first at UVA and 100th in 12 seasons as a head coach. (The first 99 came at BYU.)
“So that’s gratifying when it meant a lot for them to make me feel special and vice versa,” Mendenhall said. “It’s one of those things I won’t forget, ever.”
The breakthrough nearly came last weekend in East Hartford, Conn. But after bolting to a 10-0 lead, UVA ended up losing 13-10 to Connecticut.
Mendenhall “and his staff do so much for us and they put in so much time,” Benkert said Saturday. “It just hasn’t worked out the first three weeks the way that we wanted it to or expected it to. We just worked so hard for so long, and for all of it to finally come together and to be his 100th win after such a heartbreak last week, it was just a lot of raw emotion in the locker room.”
To see his players’ smiles in the locker room touched Mendenhall.
“I appreciate the trust that they have placed in me, embracing the new approach,” he said. “I appreciate the resiliency and the men they’re becoming, because this is not easy and they faced a lot of challenges today, ups and downs and in betweens, and I think there will be more of those until we gain maturity and execution and consistency. But I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of how they hung in there together.
“I’m certainly not saying we have arrived, but it’s a nice start today.”
On an afternoon when many players dazzled for the Cavaliers, No. 6 shined brightest. A transfer from East Carolina, from which he graduated in the spring, Benkert is in his first year at UVA. He’ll have another season of eligibility after this one, and that bodes well for Mendenhall’s rebuilding efforts.
“He’s a special talent,” Mendenhall said of Benkert.
That was clear Saturday. Benkert finished 27-of-43 passing for a school-record 421 yards and five touchdowns. Marc Verica set the previous mark in 2010, when he threw for 417 yards in a loss at Duke.
More impressive, Mendenhall said, is that Benkert “came to us as an A-student, he came to us as someone that loves football, he came to us someone that wants to lead a team and that really is no maintenance. And when you talk about quarterbacks in our day and age, that’s pretty uncommon. He’s doing a really nice job, and he is what I want at UVA: a good player, a good student, a good person and someone that can do it all. He’s learning and maturing and this is his fourth start, and to break a school record in his fourth start as a college athlete, that’s pretty remarkable.”
Virginia’s receivers helped make Benkert look good Saturday, as he was quick to point out. Sophomore wideout Olamide Zaccheaus finished with eight catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. Junior receiver Doni Dowling had five receptions for a career-best 98 yards, and senior running back Taquan Mizzell caught six passes for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Benkert and Zaccheaus combined on the fourth-quarter play that swung momentum back UVA’s way. On second-and-6 from the Virginia 18-yard, with the score 28-28, Benkert rolled to his left to avoid pressure and spotted Zaccheaus behind a cornerback along the left sideline. Zaccheaus caught Benkert’s pass around the Central Michigan 40 and raced to the end zone to complete an 82-yard TD with 9:36 remaining.
“It was there earlier in the game, and we just went back to it,” Zaccheaus said.
Mizzell, who also rushed for a game-high 79 yards and one TD, put the game out of the Chippewas’ reach with 4:05 left, eluding multiple defenders as he turned a short pass from Benkert into a 53-yard scoring play.
“It was a collective effort from a lot of different guys,” Benkert said. “That last one, Smoke took a swing [pass] for 53 yards, and I didn’t really have to do much on that one. We’ve got a lot of really good players, and they’re getting so much better every week, and the whole cohesion of the offense is just coming together really well.”
The Cavaliers don’t have as much experience or depth on defense, and they took a blow Saturday when sophomore Juan Thornhill, their top cornerback, suffered an injury on the opening kickoff. Thornhill didn’t return, and so redshirt freshman Kareem Gibson and sophomore Myles Robinson were pressed into leading roles at cornerback.
“It’s next man up,” junior linebacker Micah Kiser said. “You’ve got to be ready when your number’s called, and I think they did a good job of responding today.”
The `Hoos forced seven punts and sacked Cooper Rush, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, three times. But Virginia also allowed 402 yards passing. Eighty-five came on one play, a touchdown from Rush to wideout Corey Willis that cut UVA’s lead to 28-14 late in the second quarter.
“Our margin for error right now defensively is pretty thin, so we have to be right on the money or big plays can happen,” said Mendenhall, also UVA’s defensive coordinator. “We’re putting longer stretches [of solid defense] together, but that quarterback is capable of throwing the ball against anybody that he’s going to play, no matter what stadium he goes into. And they have a nice scheme.”
Because of injuries, the Chippewas were short-handed on defense. Midway through the third quarter, though, they pounced on a poor decision by Benkert. On second-and-10 from the CMU 48, cornerback Amari Coleman stepped in front of a Benkert pass to Zaccheaus in the left flat, intercepted the ball and ran untouched down the sideline for a 47-yard touchdown. Suddenly it was 28-21.
“It just happens,” Benkert said. “It’s football.”
Had UVA, after building a 28-point lead, not encountered any obstacles the rest of the way, the afternoon would have been less stressful for Mendenhall and his assistants, not to mention the home fans. But the Cavaliers should benefit, Mendenhall believes, from overcoming such adversity.
“It’s amazing how it can look so easy and then so difficult in the same game and the same stretches,” Mendenhall said. “But to have it look easy and look difficult and then find a way to regain poise, momentum and confidence, to then execute enough to win the game against a team that went on the road and beat a pretty good other team, I’m impressed.”
EMOTIONAL MOMENT: In the final minute, with victory assured, assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill found Mendenhall on the sideline and wrapped him in a hug.
Asked about the exchange, Mendenhall said he and McNeill “love each other and we’re glad to be working together, and we have a pretty special friendship that’s been formed over a relatively short amount of time. And he’s been a head coach, and he knows what that’s like.
“It’s hard to say unless you’ve been in that seat. That doesn’t mean better or worse or more important or less important, but he gets it. That he came over meant a lot to me.”
McNeill was head coach at East Carolina, his alma mater, for six seasons before being dismissed in December. At UVA, he coaches the defensive line in addition to assisting Mendenhall.
TOWER OF POWER: Virginia’s standouts Saturday included reserve defensive end Jack Powers, who broke up three passes. The 6-5, 280-pound Powers transferred to UVA after graduating from Arizona State in July.
Like Benkert, Powers will be eligible to play next season, too.
Powers did not play football in 2015-16, and he was an offensive lineman for the Sun Devils in 2013 and ’14.
“It’s a reclamation project,” Mendenhall said. “He goes to one program, and it isn’t a great fit and they want him to play offensive line. He sees value in finding another place and believed in himself enough. We needed more size and depth on the defensive line, so we’ve taught him defense again, taught him his assignments.
“What’s really fun is just how grateful he is to be here and grateful to be playing football, and his role keeps expanding, because he just works his guts out at practice, and he’s giving us another player that’s capable on early downs of playing base defense, which is really helpful.”
Powers, a defensive lineman in high school, said he arrived at UVA with an open mind and has been “trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. I think that’s the main thing. Just trying to learn fast, and it’s been awesome. I feel every week I’m just picking up more and more, and getting back into that D-end spot, it’s a dream come true.
“Coach Mendenhall took a chance on me and let me come back and play the position I wanted. Every day I’m working to deserve that and to earn it.”
BULLETIN-BOARD MATERIAL: On ESPN’s College GameDay show Saturday morning, analyst Kirk Herbstreit matter-of-factly stated that “UVA is not going to win a game this year.”
“I just want to thank College GameDay for not believing in us,” Reid told reporters after Virginia’s victory.
Mizzell said: “That was some great motivation.”
UP NEXT: For the third time in four games, the Cavaliers will be on the road. At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia (1-3) opens ACC play against Duke (2-2 overall, 0-1 conference) at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. The `Hoos are looking to end a 17-game road losing streak.
Duke stunned Notre Dame 38-35 yesterday in South Bend, Ind.
The Cavaliers defeated the Blue Devils 42-34 at Scott Stadium last year. UVA leads the series 34-33 but hasn’t won in Durham since 2006.