Sept. 23, 2017
BOISE, Idaho — This was the kind of night the University of Virginia envisioned when it hired Bronco Mendenhall as its head football coach in December 2015.
In the blue-turfed stadium where Boise State had not lost a non-conference regular-season game since 2001, the Cavaliers dominated Friday night. After falling behind 7-0 early, they stormed back to defeat the Broncos 42-23 before an ESPN2 audience and a stunned crowd at Albertsons Stadium.
“It’s a great win for the program, in a setting that is really neat to be part of and was on national TV,” Mendenhall said. “Momentum is being generated even as we speak.”
All nine of Boise State’s second-half points came in the final 2:07, against a UVA defense made up primarily of true freshmen. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Broncos (2-2) had 21 yards rushing and trailed 35-14.
“This is what we’ve been preaching: this new standard that everyone doesn’t understand,” UVA safety Quin Blanding said of the defense’s performance.
“Well, you’ve just seen it tonight. This is what our new standard is, and that’s how we’re going to keep playing, and our defense is going to keep getting better and better each week.”
Virginia’s offense totaled 440 yards, including 167 in the running game. Junior running back Jordan Ellis led the Cavaliers (3-1) with 93 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, and junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus had a 56-yard TD run on a jet sweep in the third quarter.
“When you can run the ball and really get it moving on the ground, it really gives you an opportunity, like we saw tonight, to open up more of the vertical passing game,” senior offensive tackle Jack English said. “A lot of the stuff we were doing down the field [in the passing game] was off of run fakes and stuff like that.”
For the second straight game, senior quarterback Kurt Benkert sparkled, this time completing 19 of 29 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“He’s a really good player, and we’re lucky to have him,” Mendenhall said.
Against Boise State, Dowling had a 27-yard TD reception and Zaccheaus caught four passes for 29 yards. But the night belonged to Levrone. He finished with five catches for a career-high 141 yards and two touchdowns.
The first TD came on a 30-yard pass that Levrone leaped to snare in the end zone, the second on a 64-yard bomb that Levrone caught in full stride with two defenders near him.
“He’s fast, he’s big, he’s strong,” Benkert said. “He can do everything.”
The key to the Cavaliers’ recent production through the air?
“It’s the run game,” Mendenhall said. “It’s the run game, the run game, the run game. It’s everything in determining downfield throws.”
This was the first road game of the season for the `Hoos, who had won only twice away from Scott Stadium since the end of the 2011 season. That didn’t faze them or their coach.
“We’re just going one game at a time building a football program, and the historical part is irrelevant to me at this point,” Mendenhall said. “This team thinks it can win, whether it’s on the road or at home.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Four games into the season, the Cavaliers have surpassed their victory total from 2016, when they finished 2-10. Virginia lost its first three games last season, won its next two and then dropped its final seven.
“We’ll take it,” Mendenhall said of his team’s 3-1 record.
The `Hoos, picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division, were double-digit underdogs Friday night against Boise State.
“We see what people say,” Benkert said. “It’s kind of expected with how the season went last year. But we know what we’ve put into this, and we know how much better we are. We’re a different team.”
All-America linebacker Micah Kiser said: “Watch our tape from last year and watch us this year. It’s night and day, a whole different team. The culture’s there, and now we’re starting to execute a lot differently. You see the points on offense, you see what we’re doing on defense, and the sky’s the limit for us.”
TURNING POINT: Late in the first half, with Virginia leading 14-7, the Broncos attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-3 from their 40-yard line. It failed, and the Cavaliers took over on Boise State’s 35.
On first down, Benkert passed to Zaccheaus for a 8-yard gain. On second down, Benkert hit Dowling for a 27-yard touchdown, and A.J. Mejia’s extra point made it 21-7.
“That was huge,” Benkert said of that sequence. “We call it `complementary football,’ so when [special teams or defense makes] a big stop, we gotta come out and put points on the board.”
IT WAS OVER WHEN: Virginia scored on the first possession of the second half, on Benkert’s bomb to Levrone, to go up 28-14 about 90 seconds into the third quarter. But what started the exodus of Boise State fans to the exits was Zaccheaus’ 56-yard touchdown run with 6:51 left in the third.
As a true freshman in 2015, Zaccheaus carried 33 times for 262 yards, an average of 7.9 yards per game. He had only three carries last fall, but this season he’s already run the ball six times, for 111 yards and one TD.
As a receiver, Zaccheaus has a team-high 30 catches for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
“Every time O gets the ball in his hands he has a chance to make something happen,” English said.
Benkert said: “Olamide still has the ability to go deep and take the top off the defense, but his side-to-side and horizontal threat that he brings to our offense is huge.”
MISSION STATEMENT: On the afternoon of the Sept. 2 opener against William & Mary, moments before the Cavaliers boarded the buses that would carry them to Scott Stadium, Kiser addressed the team.
“He let everybody know that we’ve worked too hard [to fail],” Levrone said Friday night. “There’s a new standard for Virginia football, and that’s just what we’re going to continue to play with.
“He gave a quick speech and just emphasized all the work that we’d put in [during] the offseason and the failed results of last season. It’s all on us .. When we’re on the field, it’s those 11 guys that have to demonstrate our new standard.”
GAME BALLS: For the second straight game, the list of UVA standouts was a long one. They included:
* Benkert, a graduate student who in 14 games as a Cavalier has thrown 31 touchdown passes. That ranks fifth all-time at UVA. In four games this season, he has 10 TD passes.
* Levrone, a fifth-year senior who has nearly as many receiving yards this season (348) as he had combined in his first three seasons (390). With four TD receptions, he has twice as many as he had his first three years.
He’s averaging 26.8 yards per reception this season.
“What he’s able to do when he’s completely healthy playing at his best is big for the offense,” Zaccheaus said, “because it just opens up everybody else, the run game and the intermediate passing game as well. As you saw, he can take the top off the defense, and Kurt can get him the ball.”
* Blanding, a four-year starter who led the `Hoos with 10 tackles. That put him over the 400-tackle mark for his career. Only three other players have recorded that many stops at UVA.
* Virginia’s linemen on both sides of the ball. Their physicality proved decisive Friday night.
“I think that’s where the game starts, and that was our focus coming in,” Mendenhall said. “[Offensive coordinator Robert Anae] stressed to the team early on that this game was going to be won in the trenches, not [because of] all the tricks, not all the gadgets, not all the momentum or the setting or the turf. It’s going to be just simply blocking and tackling in the trenches. We were able to run the ball effectively, and [Boise State] struggled to run it. That gave us the chance to control the momentum.”
* Defensive end Steven Wright, a redshirt sophomore who made his first start of the season. Wright had a sack in the first quarter and nearly intercepted a pass in the third quarter.
“He’s really found his swagger,” Blanding said.
This was by far the most Wright has played in a game as a Cavalier.
“He earned all that by how he performed in practice,” Mendenhall said.
Wright said: “I’m just really focusing on technique, focusing on staying consistent during practice. Just working on the little things that I didn’t work on during summer.”
A graduate of Ware County High in Waycross, Ga., the 6-4 Wright weighed about 230 pounds when he enrolled at UVA in 2015. He’s up to 290.
* Redshirt freshman safety Brenton Nelson, who had his first interception as a Cavalier last weekend against UConn, grabbed another pick Friday night. He also had five tackles, including one for loss, and broke up a pass.
THEY SAID IT: The postgame scene in the visiting locker room “was amazing,” Kiser said, and the Cavaliers’ joy was still apparent when they fielded questions from reporters. Among the comments:
* Mendenhall: “I love my team. I love the progress they’re making. None of this was about statistics or records or [blue] turf or anything. It’s just a chance for us to continue to learn and grow and move our program forward. None of that other stuff was mentioned. We just came to play UVA football. All that changed was the location today.”
* Mendenhall on the special teams and defensive breakdowns that allowed the Broncos to score a touchdown late in the first half: “That just set the tone for halftime and going forward. There wasn’t anything that was passive at all about the locker room. I was angry at the players, they were angry at each other, and they knew they could do better. They came out with the intent to do better, because there was slight lapse, and it made it us all mad.”
* English on the significance of the win: “As a team, we’ve kind of been talking for [a long time] about the need to sort of break through and take that next step. Personally, I don’t believe that a breakthrough happens necessarily in one specific moment, but I think this is definitely a step that the program can take and the team’s taking, to hopefully propel us further down the road.”
* Kiser on whether the victory accelerates Mendenhall’s building process: “It does, and it gives you that confidence. One thing that we haven’t really had with Virginia football is a lot of confidence. We’ve gone on the road, we’ve gone to UCLA, we’ve got to Oregon, and we’ve really gotten our butts kicked. So to come out here and play a full game and put our best effort and come out with a win is great.”
* Ellis: “If we’re running the ball effectively, you can just see the passing game open up. If the passing game is working, the running game opens up. We’re really working well as a team, and that showed today.”
* Wright, with a smile, on what could have been his first career interception: “I should have capitalized on it, but I’m going to hop on the JUGS [passing machine] and just try to get my hands right.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers are off next weekend. Then comes UVA’s ACC opener, Oct. 7 against Duke (3-0) at Scott Stadium.
Last season, the `Hoos defeated the Blue Devils 34-20 at Wallace Wade Stadium to end a 17-game road losing streak.
Duke (3-0) opens ACC play Saturday afternoon against North Carolina (1-2 overall, 0-1 conference) in Chapel Hill.
“We can use some rest,” Mendenhall said of the bye week. “We can use it to our advantage. We’re looking forward to it.”
The kickoff time for the Duke game is expected to be announced Monday. Tickets can be purchased here.
Cavalier Value package tickets are $28 apiece. That includes a game ticket and $8 concessions voucher. They can be purchased here.