By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a sparkling fall afternoon at Scott Stadium, the University of Virginia football team took the field Saturday looking to take another significant step forward in its second season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Instead, the Cavaliers stumbled, turning in a forgettable performance that showed how thin their margin for error remains. Boston College led 24-0 less than 20 minutes into the game and rolled to a 41-10 victory over UVA, which had its four-game winning streak.
A victory over BC (4-4 overall, 2-3 ACC) would have made the Wahoos (5-2, 2-1) bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
In his postgame press conference, Mendenhall said, as he has often this fall, that his building project at UVA in its early stages.
“I think we all want to skip ahead a number of chapters to see how the story ends,” Mendenhall said. “But it’s word by word and letter by letter and page by page, and that was driven home today again.”
The loss showed “where we currently are [and] where we can be if we’re not really well prepared and really precise and [ready to] compete at an elite level, and if [the `Hoos] have an injury or two along the way,” Mendenhall said.
BC quarterback Anthony Brown entered the game having completed only 51 percent of his passes, and he’d thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes. You wouldn’t have known it from his play Saturday. A 6-1, 210-pound redshirt freshman, Brown completed 19 of 24 passes for 275 yards and three TDs, with no interceptions.
Against a UVA defense that for most of the season has been stout, the Eagles totaled 512 yards and converted 10 of 19 third downs. On fourth down, BC was 2 for 3. It didn’t help the Cavaliers that two of their starting defensive backs, junior cornerback Juan Thornhill and redshirt freshman safety Brenton Nelson, left the game with injuries.
“And so we’ve got to find a way just to get as many guys healthy and back just as fast as we can at that position,” Mendenhall said, “especially based on the type of defense we’ve been playing, the style we’ve been playing.”
BC’s defense was as impressive as its offense. The Eagles had three takeaways and held the Cavaliers to a season-low 247 yards. It was a day to remember for Boston College defensive coordinator Jim Reid, who formerly held that position at UVA.
The Eagles “were very well-prepared, they executed very well, they had an exceptional plan versus us [in] all phases,” Mendenhall said, “and I think they were the better-coached, and the better-prepared, and the better-executing football team today.
“I’m responsible for how our players play. They do the best they can, and clearly then they weren’t prepared in a manner to have the kind of chance they needed to play at a higher level.”
After a 1-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Joe Reed with 42 seconds left in the second quarter, Virginia went into halftime trailing 24-7. The Cavaliers’ second-half points came on a 38-yard field goal by A.J. Mejia early in the fourth quarter.
“I just felt like our whole team was hesitant,” said junior running back Jordan Ellis, who led UVA with 58 yards rushing on 12 carries.
Boston College improved to 6-0 all-time against Virginia.
After the game, All-America safety Quin Blanding, one of the Cavaliers’ captains, addressed his teammates in the locker room.
“I told them it’s a heart check and a gut check for all of us,” Blanding said later. “If you messed up, you messed up. Let’s get back to the film, let’s fix it, and let’s move on to next week.”
The `Hoos, Blanding said, have to “trust in each other and trust this process that Coach Mendenhall set up.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Five regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016.
“We obviously would like to have this one back,” said All-America linebacker Micah Kiser, another team captain, “but there’s plenty of time, plenty of opportunities left, and we’re just going to get right.”
GAME-CHANGERS: Boston College went up 24-0 on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Brown to tight end Tom Sweeney with 11:35 left in the second quarter.
Mendenhall pointed to three critical plays. On the first, with the score 3-0, BC wideout Thadd Smith raced 76 yards for a touchdown on a jet sweep.
On the second, a simple inside screen pass from Brown to wideout Kobay White produced another 76-yard TD. That the play came after the play clock had expired, an infraction the officiating crew missed, made it that much more frustrating for Virginia.
On the third, the Eagles successfully executed a flea flicker, Brown passing down the middle of the field to wideout Michael Walker, who had two UVA defenders near him, for a 46-yard gain. Moments later, BC scored its third touchdown to make it 24-0.
“Three giant plays in the first half,” said Mendenhall, who’s also Virginia’s defensive coordinator.
Those plays, Blanding said, “changed the momentum of the game. They shouldn’t happen, but things happen in this game and that’s what it was.”
THE GAME WAS OVER WHEN: After forcing Virginia to punt on its first possession of the second half, the Eagles marched 92 yards on a drive that took 6 minutes and 33 seconds off the clock. It ended with a touchdown that pushed the Eagles’ lead to 34-7 and extinguished the Cavaliers’ comeback hopes.
ROUGH DEBUT: With starting quarterback Kurt Benkert taking a physical pounding from BC’s defense, Virginia’s coaching staff turned to true freshman Lindell Stone, who had yet to play this season, in the fourth quarter.
“Our quarterback’s getting hit and getting banged up,” Mendenhall said. “We think we have a lot of football ahead of us still, and it wasn’t conceding anything other than [the fact that] we need [Benkert], and he’s starting to get beat up.”
Stone finished 2 of 9 passing for 26 yards. He threw two interceptions, the first of which BC returned 40 yards for a touchdown with 9:30 remaining.
“I hate doing that to a young quarterback,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said, “but that was [the situation] today, and that was his challenge.”
Hesitation by Stone’s target “caused that first interception,” said Anae, who attributed the second pick to “a bad decision” by Stone.
Benkert, too, had a game he’d rather forget. He completed 17 of 33 passes for only 126 yards, with one interception on an ill-advised toss near the sideline.
A graduate student who’s in his second year as Virginia’s starter, Benkert said he told Stone to “learn from the mistakes. Move on. Don’t read the social media. Don’t do any of that. Just get better from it.”
Benkert added: “He’s got a lot of football left to play.”
GAME BALLS: Standouts were few for Virginia in this one. But the Cavaliers who distinguished themselves included:
* Reed, a sophomore who gained 42 yards on his only kickoff return. He rushed twice for 9 yards and one TD, and he had a 17-yard reception.
* Lester Coleman, a junior who averaged 52.3 yards on his seven punts.
* Mejia, a true freshman who made his only field-goal attempt, a career-long 38-yarder. For the season, Mejia is 5 for 6 on field goals and 24 for 24 on extra points.
* Lamont Atkins, a true freshman running back who made two sterling plays on special teams. Early in the game, Atkins sprinted downfield and downed Coleman’s first punt at the Boston College 2-yard line.
On Coleman’s second punt, Atkins’ textbook open-field tackle dropped BC’s return man for a 1-yard loss.
* De’Vante Cross, a redshirt freshman who played quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback and special teams Saturday.
Late in the first quarter, Cross took a shotgun snap and ran 13 yards for a first down. After Thornhill was injured in the first half, Cross took his place at cornerback.
* Nelson, who finished with a career-high 11 tackles, and true freshman Joey Blount, who replaced him after Nelson got hurt. Blount recorded a career-best 10 tackles.
THEY SAID IT: Mendenhall, Anae and several players fielded questions from reporters after the game. Among their comments:
* Anae on the offense: “We’ve been OK [this season]. We have not been great. It’s my job to provide a vision to be great, and I have not done that at a high-enough level with our offense just yet.”
* More Anae: “Ten points in four quarters, there’s no excuse for that. Our mindset was hesitant and soft, and that’s how we played … We were soft from top to bottom, including our offensive line.”
* Offensive tackle Jack English on Anae’s assessment: “I think that’s fair. We obviously we got our butts kicked today, and that starts up front, and we take responsibility for that as an offensive line. It’s our responsibility to sort of lead the way and set the tone, and we didn’t do that today.”
* Kiser: “You win some and you lose some, and we lost this one, but we’ll come back. We’ve been playing well up to this point. We had one bad game. It doesn’t define our season. We’re just going to correct it and get back.”
* Benkert: “I think [the loss] shows that we can’t just show up and expect to win, that it’s not just going to be handed to us. We have to go take it. These teams prepare just like we prepare, and no game in the ACC is going to be easy.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers, who are 2-0 away from Scott Stadium this season, visit Pitt (3-5, 1-3) next Saturday. The teams meet at 12:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Steelers.
Pitt, which won at Duke this afternoon, leads its series with UVA 6-3. In Charlottesville last season, the Panthers rallied for a 45-31 win.
Virginia’s next home game is Nov. 4, against Georgia Tech. For ticket information, click here.