Surging 'Hoos Clear Another Hurdle
Oct. 2, 2016
DURHAM, N.C. — On the east side of Wallace Wade Stadium, the home crowd had dwindled to almost nothing, leaving behind joyous groups of orange-clad fans in the stands behind the visiting team’s sideline.
“U-V-A! U-V-A!” they chanted as the final minute ticked off the scoreboard clock.
On the field, with victory assured, the University of Virginia offense soaked in the scene. The Cavaliers were about to celebrate a win away from Scott Stadium for the first time since Nov. 3, 2012.
“We just kind of got in a huddle and took a moment to really take it in,” said junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, who transferred to UVA from East Carolina this year, “because it’s been a long time, and you see how much it means to those guys that have been here all of their careers and never won a road game.
“This is just the beginning, and it’s fun to be a part of it.”
On an unseasonably warm fall afternoon in Durham, VIrginia’s resurgence continued. UVA defeated ACC rival Duke 34-20 in a Coastal Division game Saturday. The victory was the Wahoos’ first in Durham since 2006 and, more important, ended their 17-game road losing streak.
“I really chose right from the beginning to really not acknowledge [the streak], because that just makes it bigger,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who came to UVA from BYU in December.
“What I believe is preparation is preparation, home or away. That was the message, and if we do that, it doesn’t matter really where we play, because the preparation will hold. That was the message simply to the team from the very beginning.”
The Cavaliers’ breakthrough moved them to 1-0 in ACC play, gave them back-to-back wins for the first time since 2014, and came against a Duke team that had knocked off Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., a week earlier.
“We knew that nothing would be easy, and certainly it’s not going to be going forward,” Mendenhall said. “Holy cow, we’re just barely at the bottom of this hill looking up, but it’s fun to at least have a little momentum.”
UVA’s first win under Mendenhall came last weekend against Central Michigan at Scott Stadium. In that game, the `Hoos lost their No. 1 cornerback, sophomore Juan Thornhill, to an injury on the opening kickoff.
Thornhill was back in the starting lineup Saturday, and on the game’s first play he broke up a pass. That was a sign of things to come for Virginia’s defense, which forced six turnovers.
By game’s end, Thornhill had two interceptions, as did true freshman cornerback Bryce Hall, who took over for starter Kareem Gibson early in the game. Virginia tied the school record with five picks — junior safety Quin Blanding had the other one — on a memorable day for a young defense that’s growing more comfortable each week in the 3-4 scheme Mendenhall installed this year.
Even after losing junior Andrew Brown, its most disruptive defensive end, to an injury midway through the second quarter, Virginia found ways to stymie an explosive offense.
Twice in the fourth quarter UVA (2-3 overall) stopped Duke (2-3, 0-2) on fourth down — first on a sack by junior linebacker Micah Kiser and then on a pass breakup by fifth-senior end Mark Hall. Then, with about five minutes left and Virginia leading 27-20, outside linebacker Jordan Mack, another true freshman, raced untouched into the end zone on a blitz.
Mack hammered quarterback Daniel Jones, jarring the ball loose, and redshirt freshman defensive end Eli Hanback pounced on the fumble for a touchdown.
“It’s not done,” said Mendenhall, also Virginia’s defensive coordinator. “It’s not a finished product. We’re just beginning. But it’s fun to see the players happy. It’s fun to see them see that it’s coming. It’s fun to see them see the plan that’s in place, and it’s fun to see them believe in each other.
“I like seeing people develop, and it’s happening in front of us all, and that’s pretty cool.”
Early in the fourth quarter, after Duke closed to 27-20, Mendenhall called for a fake punt on fourth-and-3 from the Virginia 45. The Blue Devils read the play perfectly and smothered running back Daniel Hamm after he took a direct snap.
The fake was ill-advised, Mendenhall said later, but his defense rescued him.
On the Duke possession that followed, Kiser broke up two passes and then, on fourth-and-5 from the Virginia 28, burst through the middle and sacked Jones with 8:29 to play.
“Honestly, we had called that earlier in the game, the first drive, and I missed him,” Kiser said. “It happened the same exact way, and that time I finished it. It was a great call by Coach Mendenhall.”
Kiser, who had 17 tackles, then a career high, last year in Virginia’s win over Duke at Scott Stadium, outdid himself Saturday. He finished with a career-best 18 stops, including two for losses.
“He played out of his mind today,” Hanback said.
Kiser is “not only one of the best players on our team, but he’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever coached,” Mendenhall said. “He’s the anchor to everything: how we practice, how we respond to adversity, players that are struggling or confrontations maybe that show up in the locker room. He’s just kind of the sheriff. It’s his jurisdiction, and I’m lucky to be here with him. He’s an amazing young man with tremendous leadership.”
On offense, the `Hoos struggled to mount a consistent running game — they averaged 2.2 yards per carry — but had considerably more success through the air.
Benkert completed 23 of 41 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns, and eleven Cavaliers had at least one reception. One of them was sophomore David Eldridge, who scored his first TD as a Cavalier late in the first quarter, on a 28-yard pass play, and set up another score with an 84-yard catch late in the second quarter.
Duke “brought a lot of pressure,” Benkert said, “so I knew that if we could just buy enough time, there’d be one-on-ones down field, and our receivers made plays. It was fun to be a part of this.”
Virginia turned the ball over only once Saturday, but the mistake could have been costly. With UVA leading 27-20, Benkert threw an interception, and Duke took over with 6:24 remaining, 39 yards from a tying touchdown.
“After I threw the pick, I was like, `Dang, I really might have just blown this,’ ” Benkert said. “But I looked out on the field and saw the [Cavaliers’] defense. They weren’t shaken at all. … That defense is not one I would want to play against right now at all.”
That the `Hoos are having fun was never more evident than during the break before the start of the fourth quarter. As Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” played over the renovated stadium’s sound system, Virginia’s players danced along with the music.
They looked nothing like the tentative group that lost 37-20 to Richmond in the season opener.
“We went from being a team that wouldn’t even approach really competing hard in the opening game just for fear of being yelled at or having mistakes made,” Mendenhall said.
“We’re working on building resiliency and confidence and a demeanor that they’re capable. Eventually I’ll pull `em back, but this current mindset I’d like to take as far as possible, because the most confident teams and the most exuberant teams [often thrive].”
The Cavaliers’ road woes nearly ended Sept. 17 in East Hartford, Conn. But after building a 10-0 lead over Connecticut, Virginia stumbled and ended up losing 13-10.
“We knew we were in a similar situation against UConn, then we kind of let that slip away,” Zaccheaus said. “That’s the only thing we were thinking about, not letting that happen again, and I thought we did a good job finishing.”
“We fought through adversity again,” he said. “It got close towards the end, and I think it’s really good for this team. It would be nice to win a game on a blowout, but I think building this character and this resiliency is really going to pay off in the long term.”
DEEP THREAT: In practice, Eldridge regularly catches long touchdown passes from Benkert. Until Saturday, though, when he had two receptions for a game-high 112 yards, the 6-1, 180-pound sophomore had had a low profile in the offense.
“I was so anxious that his number could be called and he could have some success,” Mendenhall said, “because he’s worked really hard, and we need him, and he needs us. So it was really rewarding to see.”
Benkert said: “I think today was huge for him, just seeing that he can do it in a game situation, because he can do it in practice all the time. But him getting the confidence and the game-time reps and actually doing it is just huge for him.”
As a true freshman last season, Eldridge caught two passes for 88 yards. On UVA’s first possesson Saturday, he dived for a pass that glanced off his hands in the end zone. Eldridge had no such problem with the second pass thrown his way.
“It felt good to get my first career touchdown, help the team with the victory and just have all of us come together and do something we haven’t done in a long time,” he said.
BREAKOUT GAME: At 6-3, 200 pounds, Bryce Hall is a big, physical cornerback, and early in the game Saturday the Cavaliers’ coaches decided he matched up better against Duke’s receivers than did the 5-11, 170-pound Gibson.
So Hall entered the game in the first quarter and proceeded to turn in a performance that left Mendenhall marveling.
“You saw some of those plays he made today that first-years just don’t make,” Mendenhall said.
Hall’s second interception, on a long sideline pass, was impressive, but not more so than his first pick, which came early in the second quarter.
“He was blitzing on that play, and he stopped and just jumped up and intercepted it,” Mendenhall said. “That doesn’t happen. Nor was he coached to do that. That was like, `Did you really just do that?’ As a first-year, that’s pretty special.”
WELCOME ADDITION: UVA unveiled a new placekicker Saturday: senior Sam Hayward, who joined the team last month. Fans of the Virginia men’s soccer team may remember Hayward from the 2014 NCAA title game.
In Cary, N.C., Hayward was one of the players who converted penalty kicks in the shootout that lifted UVA to victory over UCLA. In his college football debut, he did not have an opportunity to attempt a field goal, but Hayward kicked off three times and went 3 for 3 on extra points. (Senior Dylan Sims also kicked off three times Saturday.)
“I’m glad Sam’s with us,” Mendenhall said. “Anyone that can line up to kick a penalty kick to win a national championship to help our soccer team win, I feel pretty good about him lining up to kick a field goal.”
Hayward decided not to play soccer this year. But when the football team struggled in the kicking game early this season, head men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch recommended Hayward to the football staff.
“Coming from the hotel to here, I was pretty nervous,” Hayward said at Wallace Wade Stadium. “It’s natural, I suppose, my first game. But once I got on the field for my first extra point, I actually felt pretty comfortable. Compared to the PK [in the NCAA championship game], it was nothing.
WINNING COMBINATION: Virginia graduate student Nicholas Conte averaged 48 yards on his seven punts Saturday, with a long of 65 yards. Twice junior defensive back Kirk Garner sprinted downfield and downed a Conte punt at the Duke 1.
Conte “continues to be a weapon giving us field position, which is a great thing,” Mendenhall said.
FALL BREAK: The Cavaliers are off next weekend. Then comes a stretch of three straight games at Scott Stadium, starting Oct. 15 against Pitt. (UVA hosts North Carolina on Oct. 22 and third-ranked Louisville on Oct. 29.)
Virginia lost 26-19 at Pitt last season.
Mendenhall said he has mixed feelings about having a weekend off, “because we’re getting better, and we’re getting better because of the work we’re putting in and the urgency we’re putting in. So this isn’t a normal bye. This is a work bye, and I expressed those expectations to the players, and so they get it. But I also let them know we’re improving because of the work.”