By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a nationally televised matinee at Scott Stadium, the University of Virginia football team rolled to a 38-18 victory over Connecticut on Saturday.
UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert, a graduate student, passed for a school-record 455 yards, breaking the mark of 421 he set last season in a win over Central Michigan.
The Wahoos totaled 626 yards of offense, their most since 2010. Their first touchdown — a 3-yard run by senior Daniel Hamm — capped a possession that lasted 9 minutes and 46 minutes. That made it the longest drive in program history.
Benkert’s main targets were three wide receivers — seniors Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone and junior Olamide Zaccheaus — each of whom finished with at least 120 yards receiving. Until Saturday, the Cavaliers had never had three players with 100 yards or more receiving in a game.
Virginia improved to 2-1. UConn fell to 1-1.
WHAT IT MEANS: A loss would have been a significant setback for the `Hoos in their second season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Now, three games in, the `Hoos have equaled their victory total from 2016.
“We’re getting there,” All-America linebacker Micah Kiser said. “Like I always tell people, for Coach Mendenhall this isn’t a one-year turnaround. This is building the program, building a culture, getting the right guys in, and slowly but surely we’re starting to bite away at that.”
The win over UConn concluded a three-game homestand for the Cavaliers. They will play four more times at Scott Stadium this season: Oct. 7 against Duke, Oct. 21 against Boston College, Nov. 4 against Georgia Tech, and Nov. 24 against Virginia Tech.
TURNING POINT: The game had not yet slipped away from the Huskies when, late in the second quarter, they went for it on fourth-and-3 from the UVA 32-yard line.
Inside linebacker Jordan Mack dropped UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs for a 1-yard loss, and the `Hoos took over at their 33. Two Benkert completions later — a 25-yarder to Zaccheaus and a 42-yarder to Levrone — Virginia was in the end zone, and true freshman A.J. Mejia’s extra point made it 17-0.
The Cavaliers’ inability to connect on long passes contributed heavily to their 34-17 loss to Indiana last weekend. Against UConn, however, Benkert had TD passes of 30, 42 and 73 yards.
“Today we were just on,” Dowling said. “There’s not much to say. We just stuck to it. We’ve been doing it all camp, so we’re not going to change up just because it doesn’t go well for us one game.”
GAME BALLS: The Cavaliers’ standouts Saturday included:
* Zaccheaus, who had 225 all-purpose yards. Zaccheaus caught nine passes for 122 yards and one touchdown, rushed four times for 47 yards, and returned two kickoffs for 56 yards. Along the way, Zaccheaus passed 1,000 yards receiving for his career.
That was “probably the closest we’ve come yet to putting him in the right places and doing the things that he’s capable of so far in our tenure here at UVA,” Mendenhall said. “He’s versatile and he’s becoming reliable and there’s a lot of different things he can do.”
* Dowling, who also topped 1,000 yards receiving for his career. Dowling had six receptions for a career-best 136 yards and one TD against UConn.
* Levrone, who caught four passes for 127 yards. His final reception went for a 73-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
* UVA’s starting offensive linemen: seniors Jack English (left tackle), John Montelus (left guard) and Brandon Pertile (right tackle), junior Jake Fieler (right guard), and, in his first start at center, redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer.
The line helped Virginia average 5.5 yards per carry. Junior running back Jordan Ellis finished with 95 yards and one TD on 20 carries.
“They just seemed to be a little bit more consistent, a little bit more cohesive and a little bit more productive,” Mendenhall said of his offensive linemen.
Ellis said: “They were definitely getting push off the ball. They were definitely moving [UConn’s] D-line.”
* Redshirt freshman safety Brenton Nelson, who had his first interception as a Cavalier, broke up two passes and made a career-high eight tackles. Nelson, a graduate of DeMatha High School, was put on scholarship this summer. He joined the program as a walk-on last summer.
“I like him a lot,” Mendenhall said. “Tackling and covering and just methodically going about making plays, I really thought he played well.”
Asked about Nelson, defensive lineman Eli Hanback said, “He makes big plays in the game because he does the same thing in practice. I’m not shocked that he’s making big plays. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s a workhorse.”
* Kiser, whose game-high 15 tackles included two sacks and a fumble recovery. That was nothing new for the graduate student who was named an All-American in 2016 after leading the ACC in tackles.
After the game Saturday, Kiser was more excited about the offense than his own performance.
“It was awesome,” Kiser said of the Cavaliers’ edge in time of possession. “It seemed like every drive we had was a 12-play drive, a 10-play drive. [UVA’s defenders] were well-rested. Kudos to the offense.”
AREAS OF CONCERN: After building a 31-0 lead, Virginia gave up three long touchdowns in the final 16 minutes. The first came on a trick play by UConn.
The Huskies, who totaled 434 yards, gained many of them once UVA made some defensive substitutions.
“As you can see, well especially from a defensive perspective, one guy at the wrong time at the wrong spot, that changes things dramatically,” said Mendenhall, also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator. “But it’s valuable, because we need that work, and we’re still developing the next tier of players.
“Again, I really like our team, but our roster is thin, and there’s still a significant gap on all phases of the team between who we’re playing with and who we’re developing. So it was fun to get some of them work, but we also saw what that looks like.”
Hanback said: “We had some assignment mess-ups. They had that trick play, but coming out of the half, you’ve just got to be aware of stuff like that. I think it just came down to assignment stuff at the end of the game that we’ve got to focus in and lock down on.”
Senior defensive end Andrew Brown, who was coming off a strong game against Indiana, was ejected for targeting with 6:37 left in the first half. In Brown’s place, redshirt sophomore Steven Wright had two tackles, including one for loss.
“Steve did a great job today,” Hanback said. “[Defensive line coach Vic So’oto] told him he did really well. He stepped up and answered the call, and he made some key plays at some key times when we needed a play made.
THEY SAID IT: The Cavaliers had a lot to talk about Saturday afternoon. Some quotes of note from postgame interviews:
* Ellis: “It works together. The run game helps out the pass game. The pass game helps out the run game. If one is lacking, that brings the whole offense down. We just worked on getting the run game going. That really showed today and that really helped our offense out.”
* Dowling: “[The receivers] trust Kurt [Benkert] to put the ball where it’s supposed to be, and he trusts us to be where we’re supposed to be.”
* Zaccheaus on the offense’s big day: “It boosts our confidence even more. I was telling Kurt this is what we should have been doing the whole time. If we came out last week like we did this week, we would be 3-0.”
* Benkert on the Cavaliers’ progress: “Like I said before, we were 0-3 at this point last year, and [now] we’re 2-1. So that’s a huge testimony in itself. We’re building momentum early.”
* Mendenhall: “Just to emphasize, we’re still at the beginning of this process and we’re still at the beginning of this program. But it is so much fun for me to see the people in the program see the results on the field and be able to enjoy that, rather than just the day to day that we have together. It’s really gratifying to see them happy and enjoying playing UVA football and having success.”
TAKE A BOW: Among those honored during the game were members of UVA’s 2016-17 men’s tennis team. In late May, in Athens, Ga., the `Hoos capped their final season under head coach Brian Boland by winning their third straight NCAA titles and fourth in five years.
WHAT’S NEXT? UVA plays its first road game of the season Friday night in Boise, Idaho. At 8 o’clock Eastern, in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia meets Boise State (2-1) on the famed blue turf at Albertsons Stadium (capacity 36,387).
“That’ll be exciting,” Hanback said Saturday. “Definitely something different. I’ve never played on a blue field, so that’ll be fun.”
This will conclude the two-game series that was announced in February 2013. On Sept. 25, 2015, the Broncos hammered the Cavaliers 56-14 at Scott Stadium. Virginia had five turnovers, including four interceptions, two of which Boise State returned for touchdowns.