'Hoos Make Opening Statement
Sept. 2, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Indiana Hoosiers come to town next weekend, and they figure to pose a much tougher test for the University of Virginia football team. But if the Cavaliers weren’t flawless Saturday against FCS member William & Mary, they still had reason to celebrate their 28-10 victory at Scott Stadium.
For the first time since 2013, Virginia has opened a season with a win. Equally significant was the manner in which the Wahoos secured this victory. After 42 straight games with at least one turnover — a streak during which the `Hoos went 11-31 — they lost no fumbles and threw no interceptions for the first time since Oct. 12, 2013.
“That’s a lot of Virginia football games, and that’s not to be taken lightly,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We’ve emphasized that at a really high level.”
On an unseasonably cold, wet day, the Cavaliers fumbled twice against W&M (0-1), but each time they recovered the ball. Quarterback Kurt Benkert completed 27 of 39 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns and made good decisions with the ball throughout the game.
“That’s been the No. 1 emphasis, all through [training] camp and spring practice,” junior center Jake Fieler said. “First things first is ball security. It starts with me, with the snap to Kurt, and then with Kurt to whoever he’s getting it to, and then just holding onto the ball after that.”
Benkert said he was not aware of the Cavaliers’ turnover streak until after the game, but “something that we really prided ourselves on, throughout camp and throughout spring ball, is taking care of the football. It’s where all plays start and where all plays should end, with us with the ball in our ends. I think we did a good job of that today.”
This is the Cavaliers’ second season under Mendenhall, whose first game at Scott Stadium in orange and blue did not end so happily for him. In last year’s season opener, another FCS opponent, Richmond, stunned Virginia 37-20. The `Hoos went on to post a 2-10 record.
“I thought it was a solid effort by all three phases [against the Tribe],” Mendenhall said Saturday, referring to UVA’s offense, defense and special teams.
“There are certainly things that we can improve, but we looked more mature, we looked more confident, we looked more consistent and more poised, and I think just played a higher level of football in our opener from beginning to end than we did a year ago.”
The Cavaliers totaled 354 yards on offense, and sophomore Joe Reed added 91 yards on three kickoff returns. Nine UVA players had at least one reception apiece Saturday, led by senior wide receiver Doni Dowling (six catches, 76 yards).
“I thought we took care of the ball well,” Benkert said. “We moved the ball up and down the field well. I have to do a better job of giving my guys a few more chances. I overthrew a few balls, but it’s a good start and a good way to show what we’ve been working on.”
Redshirt junior Jordan Ellis, in his first game as Virginia’s featured running back, carried 20 times for 80 yards and one touchdown. He also had a 1-yard touchdown reception, on a fourth-and-goal pass from Benkert, that sealed the Cavaliers’ victory with 55 seconds remaining.
Benkert’s first TD pass, to fifth-year senior Andre Levrone, also came on fourth down. It was considerably more dramatic. On fourth-and-9 from the Tribe’s 34-yard line, Levrone raced down the left sideline and hauled in a perfectly thrown pass in the end zone with 1:31 left in the first half. That sent the `Hoos into halftime with a 14-0 lead.
“We had really moved the ball up and down the whole day and just weren’t able to capitalize,” Benkert said. “So having that right before the half was a good way to finish things off.”
He and Benkert have connected on that play “countless times” in practice and in workouts, Levrone said. “So to come out here in a game setting against a different opponent in front of fans and [show] it to the public, that was something I was very proud of.”
Levrone finished with two catches for 56 yards.
“He has [the] capability to make every single play,” Benkert said. “I left him out to dry a little bit. He should have had two today, easy. But I’m really glad that people are seeing how hard he works and [it’s producing] results.”
Benkert’s second TD pass, a 17-yarder to junior wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, pushed Virginia’s lead to 21-3 with 7:08 left in the third quarter. The Cavaliers surrendered a long touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, but overall their defense acquitted itself well.
Outside linebacker Malcolm Cook, who missed last season with a serious medical condition, led Virginia with a career-high 13 tackles, including his first career sack.
“I think the game probably meant more to him than anybody,” said Mendenhall, who received a triumphant hug from Cook after the game.
Cook, a redshirt junior from Richmond, said he was able to hold back tears before the game, “but it was emotional. My head was spinning before we ran out of the tunnel. You think, `You’ve been here all this time, and you’re just starting to actually really play.’ Then to think that you could have died last year on the field, a lot of it was running and playing through my mind. I just had to get out there and get after it.”
Before Saturday, Cook had played in only six games since enrolling at UVA in 2013. He hurt his right knee in `13, his left knee in `14, and his shoulder in `15.
Then, in August 2016, after falling twice during a post-practice workout, Cook was diagnosed with myocarditis, a disease marked by inflammation of and damage to the heart muscle. Four months later, he was cleared to play again, and he won a starting job during spring practice this year.
All-America safety Quin Blanding had 12 tackles for Virginia. Blanding’s hit on tight end Andrew Caskin late in the game jarred the ball loose, and outside linebacker Chris Peace came up with an interception. UVA’s other starting safety, junior Juan Thornhill, made a career-high 10 tackles.
“I felt like we’re a lot more confident, because we know our assignments this year, and we’re not out there guessing,” Thornhill said of Virginia’s defense. “We’re just playing football, so it’s more natural.”
The Cavaliers have multiple areas to address as they prepare for Indiana, but “overall it was a solid start,” Mendenhall said. “We have a lot of work to do in our program and we have done a lot of work, and I’m just proud of the guys.”
Ellis said: “I know this time last year we were moping around [after] we lost to an FCS team … We’ve got a pretty good test next week in Indiana, so it was good to get some confidence and get a win.”
Benkert said: “1-0 is better than 0-1. That’s where we wanted to start.”
UP NEXT: At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, UVA (1-0) hosts Indiana (0-1) at Scott Stadium. The Hoosiers opened at home Thursday night with a 49-21 loss to No. 2 Ohio State, which scored the game’s final 29 points.
This will be the third time UVA and Indiana have met in football. In Charlottesville, the `Hoos hammered the Hoosiers 47-7 in 2009. Virginia edged Indiana 34-31 in Bloomington in 2011.
Next weekend’s “game is going to come down to who finishes and who’s hungrier in the fourth quarter,” Levrone said. “They are a very formidable opponent and I think that game is going to come down to who is hungry and who finishes.”
Fieler said: “There’s no doubt that we have to improve [in practice] this week to get a win next week, but I think that’s normal. I think a lot of times you get your first game out, get all your mistakes out and then make a big improvement in Week 2.”