By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia football team, the glow from its season-opening victory faded quickly Saturday at Scott Stadium. Against an FBS opponent that was bigger, faster and more talented than FCS member William & Mary, UVA showed it’s not yet a complete team.
On a day when the Cavaliers generally acquitted themselves well on defense, their struggles in other areas proved decisive in a 34-17 loss to Indiana. UVA opened the season Sept. 2 with a 28-10 win over W&M.
“We’re still searching,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said of his group, and the same is true for the Wahoos’ special teams.
The Hoosiers’ superiority in that phase of the game was overwhelming. Indiana totaled 109 yards on five punt returns, one of which J-Shun Harris returned 44 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown, and they had 54 yards on two kickoff returns. Griffin Oakes made field goals of 51 and 48 yards for Indiana.
The `Hoos, meanwhile, failed to convert a fake field-goal attempt and totaled only 23 yards on two kickoff returns. The high point for UVA (1-1) on special teams was Daniel Hamm’s 18-yard punt return to the Indiana 24.
That came early in the second quarter, but the ensuing drive stalled inside the Hoosiers’ 10. Virginia had to settle for A.J. Mejia’s 22-yard field goal after quarterback Kurt Benkert fired a high pass that went through the hands of a wide-open Warren Craft in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 5.
“I think it would have been huge for us to score,” Benkert said. “I wish I wouldn’t have put as much air on it. I was just trying to get it over the `backer in between me and [Craft]. I’ve just got to do a better job of giving him a ball he can catch.”
Earlier in the quarter, a diving interception by junior Juan Thornhill, who moved from safety to cornerback for this game, gave the Cavaliers the ball at the Indiana 44. But a three-and-out followed.
“I think looking back we want those to be touchdowns when we go out on offense,” said senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who had two sacks and broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone.
“They’re working hard. They’re going to get right. We’re going to keep working hard. It’s a whole team effort. Special teams needs to get better. Defense needs to get better. Offense needs to get better. We’ll be better.”
UVA’s inability to run the ball effectively Saturday contributed heavily to its loss. The Cavaliers averaged 2.2 yards per carry, and that included a 12-yard touchdown run by junior Jordan Ellis in the third quarter. Virginia had more than twice as many pass attempts (66) as runs (25).
“There’s more hesitation than there is decisiveness, and that’s showing in the run game,” Anae said.
“Our rushing game is not as efficient and not as clean [as desired], and right now that’s one of the challenging parts of the offense that we’re working through.”
The passing game was far from flawless, too. Benkert completed 39 of 66 attempts, but only three of his completions went for more than 17 yards. He averaged 6.6 yards per completion.
“We’ve got to do a better job on early downs to get us into third-and-manageable,” Benkert said. “That’s really what the game came down to. We weren’t as efficient moving the ball early on, and it affected us later in the game and later in drives. That starts with me. I’ve got to complete the ball, got to distribute it to the right guys. We’ll make improvements.”
Benkert said he expected Virginia to be more effective running the ball, and “to have to lean on the pass as much as we did, we weren’t ready for that.”
He repeatedly threw deep balls, to no avail.
“I gotta do a better job of giving those [receivers] a chance to go up and get it,” Benkert said. “[The Hoosiers] pressed a lot more and were a lot more physical on the outside than we expected or really had gotten a chance to see … It’s something we’ll be able to go back and look at on the film and see how we can adjust and make those competitive plays.”
Anae said blocking and ball security will be emphasized as the `Hoos prepare to host Connecticut next weekend. The final stats show no turnovers for UVA against Indiana, but that’s deceiving.
“We had a couple bail-outs with calls,” Anae said, referring to an interception and, later, a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Hoosiers, second-half plays that were negated by penalties against the visitors.
“My hope is that we can find that monumental improvement from the first couple weeks of the year with securing the ball,” Anae said.
Virginia went into halftime trailing 17-3 after gaining only 111 yards.
“Too many miscues, too many missed assignments, a lot of hesitation,” Anae said. “When challenged, I thought our guys came out of the locker room in the second half and were much better in our efficiency on first down and third down.”
After Benkert’s 7-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed, Mejia’s extra point made it 27-17 with 12:45 remaining. The Cavaliers came no closer.
The Hoosiers answered with a drive that took five minutes and 42 seconds off the clock. It produced no points but flipped the field, and after Virginia netted 1 yard on three plays, Harris returned Lester Coleman’s punt for a touchdown, and that was that.
“That was a critical juncture in the game,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and they executed that really well.”
In its season-opening loss to No. 2 Ohio State, Indiana gained 437 yards. Passes by Richard Lagow accounted for 410 yards of that total. Against the Cavaliers, however, the Hoosiers’ offense sputtered with Lagow at quarterback, and head coach Tom Allen turned to backup Peyton Ramsey early in the second quarter.
“We completely took them out of their game plan,” said Kiser, who finished with 14 tackles, including two sacks.
Alas for the Cavaliers, the Hoosiers’ Plan B paid big dividends. Ramsey is not the passer that Lagow is, but he’s a superior runner, and by the time the Cavaliers adjusted to Indiana’s new tactics, it was 17-3. The Hoosiers passed for a modest 197 yards Saturday, but they ran for another 121. Ramsey had a 26-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter.
“As a defense, there’s some bright spots, but also some spots we have to fix,” said sophomore inside linebacker Jordan Mack, who had a career-best 16 tackles. “It’s all about looking at the film and fixing them and coming back next week.”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers conclude their three-game homestand next Saturday against Connecticut. In a game to be televised by ESPNU, Virginia (1-1) meets UConn (1-0) at noon at Scott Stadium.
Former Maryland head coach Randy Edsall is in his second stint with the Huskies. UConn opened the season with a 27-20 win over Holy Cross. The Huskies were scheduled to host South Florida this weekend, but the game was cancelled because of complications from Hurricane Irma.
Virginia is 1-2 all-time against UConn. When the teams met last year in East Hartford, the Huskies rallied for a 13-10 win.