By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Inside the home locker room at Scott Stadium, smiling players danced and chanted as they emptied water bottles on each other Saturday night. Then Jordan Ellis added the exclamation point to a satisfying day for the University of Virginia football team.
Ellis, who had pounded Richmond’s defense for much of the evening, picked up a sledgehammer. With it he broke, to the delight of his teammates and coaches, the slab of rock that lay on the floor of the locker room.
It’s a ritual that will be repeated after every UVA win this season, with director of football performance and development Shawn Griswold selecting the player who gets the honor of smashing the rock.
Ellis was an easy choice on opening night. The fifth-year senior rushed 20 times for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns to help the Cavaliers defeat the Spiders 42-13 in a game whose start was delayed 39 minutes because of severe weather in the area.
“I’ve played in front of some really good running backs, and Jordan’s definitely special,” offensive tackle Marcus Applefield, a graduate transfer from Rutgers, said after his first game as a Cavalier. “He gets low, and he’ll get yards no matter what.”
But Griswold had other good options Saturday night, starting with quarterback Bryce Perkins, who played last fall at Arizona Western College. In his major-college debut, Perkins stunned the Spiders with two long TD runs in the first quarter: a 36-yarder and a 22-yarder.
“He is really electric,” UR head coach Russ Huesman said, “and they did a great job of putting him in positions to utilize his legs.”
Ellis said: “Obviously with Bryce having those two huge runs at the start of the game, that opened up the run game for us.”
Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January, finished with 108 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Especially impressive was the poise he showed after making a major error on the Wahoos’ first possession. Perkins threw an ill-advised pass that linebacker Dale Mathews intercepted and returned 72 yards for a touchdown.
“I was just trying to make a play,” Perkins said. “I’ve got to do a better job of just living for the next down. We were in field-goal position. Take the sack or just throw it away.”
The 6-3, 210-pound junior didn’t dwell on his mistake.
“I came off to the sideline, took a deep breath and said, ‘All right, you got it out now, let’s just go play how you know how to play,’ and I think I did a pretty good job,” Perkins told reporters.
Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, completed 13 of 24 passes for 185 yards and two TDs against Richmond. Senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus caught a short pass from Perkins in the second quarter and turned it into a 38-yard touchdown, and Perkins hit junior wideout Hasise Dubois on a crossing route for a 20-yard TD early in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s in his third season at Virginia, regularly saw such plays from Perkins throughout training camp and in the week leading up to the opener.
“That was probably the most pleasing thing to me,” Mendenhall said. “It looked just like practice. There were some miscues, but there was dynamic play, the chains were moving, you never knew when he might just go the whole way, [but there are also] elements of his game and our team’s game that clearly showed we need work.”
The ‘Hoos finished with 301 yards rushing, their high during Mendenhall’s tenure.
“We wanted at least 200 yards [rushing] today,” said redshirt freshman Ryan Nelson, who started at left offensive tackle. “That was a huge thing for us today. It was a giant goal, and we reached it today.”
Late last season, the Cavaliers’ running game struggled, and the offense sputtered. A key factor was the offensive line’s inability to consistently open holes, but opposing defenses didn’t have to worry that Kurt Benkert, Virginia’s starting quarterback in 2016 and ’17, would hurt them as a runner.
With Perkins, the situation has changed.
‘We have worked hard to reshape what we do offensively,” Mendenhall said. “That is still at the beginning stages, but I think you saw some of that direction with the combination of Jordan and Bryce and some on the throw game coming off of that.”
The line’s blocking has improved, Mendenhall said, “but the design [of the offense] is also different. When you have a quarterback run threat, yards are easier [to get] on the ground. We believe that a quarterback run threat takes more pressure off the other 10 players. The defense usually runs out of numbers, and when that happens, then the pass game and big plays are opened up that way, which you saw with Olamide and Hasise. There were big plays on the perimeter. I’m not going to say the [rushing] yards are misleading, but it’s a different style.”
WHAT THIS MEANS: For the second straight year, UVA opened the season with a convincing home win against an opponent that competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. (Virginia defeated William & Mary 28-10 in 2017.)
The victory over UR offered further evidence of the progress UVA has made under Mendenhall. On Sept. 3, 2016, the Spiders came into Scott Stadium and won 37-20, spoiling Mendenhall’s debut with the Cavaliers.
Virginia finished 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season and then improved to 6-7 in 2017.
“I recognize we’re still at the beginning of what this particular season will look like, this offense will look like, and this team [will look like],” Mendenhall said Saturday night. “But there is a different poise, a different maturity, and a different clarity and confidence certainly from two years ago in our opener. Our roster is becoming deeper, and our practice habits are allowing us to be more physical, especially now that we have some injuries that are healing up. So it was a good start to the season.”
COUNTERPUNCHES: If UVA fans despaired after Perkins’ pick-six, their mood improved quickly.
Virginia answered Richmond’s defensive touchdown with Perkins’ 36-yard scoring run. Then, after the Spiders went up 10-7 on Griffin Trau’s 42-yard field goal, the Cavaliers responded again.
A drive that began at the Virginia 32 started with a 15-yard completion from Perkins to Zaccheaus. It ended with an option keeper on which Perkins raced 22 yards for his second TD.
“The dude is quick,” Huesman said.
WELCOME TO COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Virginia, which played 17 true freshmen last season, used seven against Richmond: defensive linemen Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui, linebacker Noah Taylor, wide receivers Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp, offensive tackle Bobby Haskins and quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who took over for Perkins in the fourth quarter.
A 6-0, 320-pound nose tackle, Redmond became the first true freshman to start a season opener on the defensive line for UVA since Kwakou Robinson in 2002.
When the ‘Hoos are in their nickel defense, they use only two linemen, and the nose tackle comes out. Virginia was in that scheme for much of the game, which limited Redmond’s opportunities, but he’s “shown us enough that he’s physical and he’s capable,” Mendenhall said, “and it allows us to play Eli [Hanback] at both [defensive end and nose tackle] which helps us with depth.”
GAME BALLS: In addition to Ellis and Perkins, numerous other Cavaliers distinguished themselves in the opener. They included:
* Sophomore Brian Delaney kicked off seven times. Six produced touchbacks.
“That was a real bright spot to me,” Mendenhall said.
* Zaccheaus, who set a Virginia single-season record with 85 receptions in 2017, caught six passes for 101 yards and one touchdown against UR.
On his TD reception, he caught a short pass in the left flat, faked toward the middle of the field and then outran the defense down the left sideline for a 38-yard score.
Zaccheaus has been working with receivers coach Marques Hagans to become more productive after the catch, and that was evident Saturday night.
“My mindset after I catch the ball shouldn’t just be conceding the tackle or anything,” Zaccheaus said. “I need to be able to make people miss. That’s the next level to my game.”
* Sophomore safety Brenton Nelson, the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year in 2017, had an interception and broke up a pass. He also made four tackles, one of which, early in the second quarter, saved a touchdown.
On a 54-yard pass play, Nelson ran down UR receiver Cortrelle Simpson at the Virginia 13. The Spiders’ drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt.
* Sophomore defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, showing no ill effects from the high-ankle sprain that sidelined him for most of training camp, sacked UR’s Kevin Johnson for a 9-yard loss late in the first quarter.
THEY SAID IT: The Cavaliers had much to talk about after the game. Among the noteworthy comments:
* Mendenhall on his players’ response to UR’s defensive touchdown: “I think it just made ’em mad, because they want to play well. Not mad at Bryce. They’re holding themselves to a higher standard. They call it the new standard, and they don’t like mistakes. There’s less tolerance, there’s less patience for it, and there’s a higher level of expectation.”
* Applefield on the playmaking skills Perkins displayed against Richmond: “It happens all the time in practice as well. That’s why the offensive line, we have to keep blocking for this dude, because he just creates things.
“With Bryce, you never know when things are going to pop out with him, so we’ve just got to keep on our blocks … because we know that he can make things happen.”
* Ellis on the victory: “This is just a starting point for us. We still have a lot to accomplish. We expect this out of ourselves, to come out here and dominate like we did.
“We know this is just the start, just the first game of the year. We have 11 more [regular-season] games to go, and we’ve got to keep it going.”
UP NEXT: Virginia travels to Big Ten country to face Indiana. Next Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the Cavaliers (1-0) meet the Hoosiers (1-0) in Bloomington.
Indiana opened the season Saturday night with a 38-28 win over Florida International in Miami.
The Cavaliers lead the series 2-1. In 2009, Virginia defeated the Hoosiers 47-7 in Charlottesville. Two years later, UVA rallied to win 34-31 in Bloomington. When the teams met last season at Scott Stadium, Indiana won 34-17.