By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Behind the players, the Scott Stadium scoreboard displayed the final score of an excruciating loss for the University of Virginia football team.
At the other end of the stadium, the Cavaliers saw a different picture. A throng of UVA fans cheered the players as they ran off the field Saturday afternoon. In the locker room, head coach Bronco Mendenhall offered more perspective.
“I told them I was proud of them,” Mendenhall said later at his press conference. “We don’t focus much on the opponent, but most people do. And so if that is the No. 5 team in the country and that is the possible Heisman Trophy winner, then I’d say we’re making progress in almost every area of our team.”
What would have ranked among the most memorable victories in program history barely eluded UVA. After Virginia scored a touchdown and added the 2-point conversion with 1:57 to play to take a 25-24 lead, Louisville turned to its Heisman candidate, dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“He’s an amazing athlete and he’s an amazing football player,” Mendenhall said.
A 6-3, 204-pound sophomore, Jackson led the Cardinals on a drive that ended with his 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jaylen Smith with 13 seconds left. Sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill’s defense on Smith in the end zone was good, but the throw and catch were better, and the Cards escaped with a 32-25 victory.
“They made one more play than we did today,” said Mendenhall, who’s in his first year at UVA. “It was great coverage. There’s really nothing I could tell our corner to do any better than what he did.”
Virginia (2-6 overall, 1-3 ACC) became the only team this season to lead Louisville (7-1, 5-1) after one quarter. The Wahoos stretched their lead to 17-7 in the third quarter, only to surrender 17 straight points. But the `Hoos regrouped and persevered.
On a drive that began with 8:09 remaining, Virginia twice converted on fourth down: the first time on a 5-yard completion from quarterback Kurt Benkert to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling and the second time on a 30-yard pass from Benkert to senior wideout Keeon Johnson to the Louisville 4.
“I thought Kurt made a big-time throw,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said, “and Keeon Johnson made a big-time catch and [ran] a big-time route, and it was really good to see in a pressure situation those two guys connect.”
One play later, Benkert hit Dowling in the end zone on a slant pattern, and it was 24-23. Given a choice, Virginia’s coaches didn’t hesitate. Placekicker Sam Hayward stayed on the sideline, and the offense stayed on the field.
“I wanted to win and I didn’t want to go to overtime,” Mendenhall said. “I wanted to win now. I wanted the team to know that I believed in them and that we weren’t going to rely on anyone else, that we had an opportunity to show how we’re going to play and how the program is going to be run. And they executed it really well. Coach Anae made a great call.”
With a running back on either side of him — Jordan Ellis to his left and Albert Reid to his right — Benkert lined up in the shotgun and took the snap from center Jackson Matteo. Reid sprinted to the right flat and caught a short pass from Benkert to make it 25-24 with 1:57 left.
Another running back, senior Taquan Mizzell, watched nervously from the UVA sideline as the play unfolded.
“It was hard for me to watch at first,” Mizzell said. “But that play has worked 10 times out of 10 [in practice] this year.”
The Cavaliers’ final touchdown drive showed they’re “never out of the fight,” Benkert said. “Just because we have a few [unproductive] drives here and there, it doesn’t mean we can’t turn the ship around. We’re an explosive team, and we can score when we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We feel like we can score on anybody.”
Nobody exemplified Virginia’s resolve better than Benkert, a junior who’s in his first year as a starter. Coming off a game in which he was benched in the fourth quarter, Benkert took every snap against Louisville and completed 25 of 39 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns.
Benkert threw two interceptions, one of which set up the touchdown that put Louisville up 21-17, but he never stopped battling.
Mendenhall praised Benkert’s resilience.
“We have a very simple mantra: You fall forward,” Mendenhall said. “That’s where the learning and growth happens. That’s where the development comes. He’s learning to be resilient, he’s learning to be poised, he’s learning to finish games. There are quarterbacks all over the country, and ups and downs are kind of part of the position, and really the ones that can handle that and just keep going on, poised, confident, and controlled, are the ones that are the magical leaders and the ones that really help football teams. I think he’s one of those and will be one of those.”
For him, Benkert said, Virginia’s final touchdown drive was “a confidence-builder, obviously. There’s not really any way you can replicate that in practice against a team like that. We just have to go into next week and know that we’ve been in a really difficult situation already, and we’re good enough.”
After a spectacular first half Oct. 15 against Pitt, Benkert struggled in the second half of that game. His uneven play continued last weekend against North Carolina, and Anae turned to backup Connor Brewer in the fourth quarter.
“It was a little bit of a challenge,” Benkert said Saturday, “but I’m confident in myself. Just because I was playing below average for a few quarters or whatever, doesn’t mean that I’ve lost it or anything. I know what I’m capable of.”
Dowling caught two of Benkert’s TD passes Saturday, and sophomore wideout Olamide Zaccheaus snared the other one. Dowling, Johnson and Mizzell each had five receptions, and Mizzell led the team in rushing with 66 hard-earned yards.
But the offense squandered several scoring opportunities. Three times Saturday the Cavaliers came away with no points after crossing the Louisville 25-yard line. One of those drives ended with an interception, another with a fourth-down incompletion on what Anae later called an ill-advised trick play, and the other with a missed field-goal attempt.
“We need those points,” Reid said. “When we’re in the red zone, we’re supposed to score, and we’ve got to work on that.”
Louisville came in averaging 52.6 points per game, but a UVA defense whose rotation includes more than a half-dozen freshmen sacked Jackson five times and had two takeaways. Only Clemson, which had five sacks on Oct. 1, has matched Virginia’s total against Louisville this season.
“We definitely executed the game plan,” said junior inside linebacker Micah Kiser, who played brilliantly Saturday. Kiser had three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and 14 stops in all.
“We rushed anywhere from three, four or five,” said Mendenhall, also Virginia’s defensive coordinator. “We [installed] about as much defense as we could hold in preparation for a game, and it took everything that we had. We had a decent idea of what their protection was. That doesn’t mean if you are unblocked that you’re going to tackle their quarterback, but we were able to affect him and affect him for a long time.”
With senior Zach Bradshaw sidelined by an ankle injury, true freshman Landan Word started at inside linebacker alongside Kiser. The son of former UVA great Barry Word finished with five tackles, including one for loss, and broke up a pass.
“He’s a baller,” Kiser said. “Landan Word is going to be a great player here. He’s really athletic.”
The Cavaliers’ list of standouts was a long one Saturday.
“I loved how my team responded from beginning to end,” Mendenhall said. “I loved the improvement that they made and are making. I like the unity that they’re showing. I like the improvement and execution that they demonstrated. I like their mindset and [how they focused] on each other and what we could control and not on our opponent or what anyone thought of them.”
However, Mendenhall added, the “team wants to win and I want to win, and we’re working toward that. And so we’ll take whatever we can and everything we can from this game and improve on it and learn and grow and continue to move the program forward.”
Junior safety Quin Blanding had eight tackles and an interception Saturday. He too was determined to stay positive after a heart-wrenching defeat.
“It’s football,” Blanding said. “There’s ups and downs. But that’s the No. 5 team, and we went toe and toe, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing, no matter what … We’re just going to keep fighting.”
Kiser said: “It’s a gradual process, and we’re getting better … This is Coach Mendenhall and his staff’s first year here, really re-establishing the culture, so it’s a steady process. You can’t quit on it.”
AS GOOD AS ADVERTISED: Jackson threw one interception, but otherwise he dazzled Saturday, completing 24 of 41 passes for 361 yards and four touchdowns.
His final TD pass will be enduring memory of many who watched this game, but earlier on the drive Jackson threaded a pass between two Cavaliers for a 5-yard completion on fourth-and-3 from the 50.
Jackson also carried 18 times for a game-high 90 yards. On the Cardinals’ final drive, which started on the 25, he scrambled for 18 yards on first down and later had runs of 9 and 7 yards.
“You can cover his guys all you want, but he’s faster than everyone on the field,” Kiser said. “We did our best, but at the end of the day he can outrun everyone.”
CHANGE OF TACTICS: Until Saturday, the Cavaliers had employed a no-huddle offense this season. But UVA was in no hurry against the Cards, huddling whenever it had the ball.
“They get enough touches anyway and they go fast enough anyway,” Mendenhall said, “and they’re athletic and fast also in terms of personnel, and they were scoring 53 points a game. The simple strategy was, the less they touch it and the less they have it, hopefully the less they’ll score. And I think that was right on point, and it gave us a chance to be deliberate and work execution-wise one play at a time rather than focus on the tempo so much, and I think that helped our execution offensively.”
NEW LOOK: Benkert transferred to UVA in the late spring from East Carolina, where he missed the 2015 season after tearing an ACL. Before Saturday, Benkert had been a reluctant runner as a Cavalier, but he carried six times for 25 yards against Louisville. (On the game’s final play, Benkert was sacked for an 8-yard loss, which dropped his net rushing total to 17 yards.)
“Some of it was designed,” Benkert said. “Some of it was the holes opening up [when the Cards were] covering our guys pretty well. It’s just something I’m still getting used to again, off of surgery, so I’m just trying to utilize it going forward.”
UP NEXT: Four regular-season games remain for Virginia (2-6 ACC, 1-3). Three are on the road, starting Saturday at 3 p.m. against Wake Forest (5-3, 2-2) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The game will be broadcast on Regional Sports Networks, including Comcast SportsNet.
Virginia leads the series 34-14. The teams haven’t met since 2012, when the Demon Deacons won 16-10 at Scott Stadium. In its most recent visit to Wake, UVA fell 28-17 in 2008.
The Deacons lost at home to Army yesterday.