By Jeff White
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – After landing at the local airport, the Virginia football team made a quick stop at Indiana University’s Memorial Stadium before heading north to its hotel in Indianapolis.
The stands in the Hoosiers’ 52,656-seat stadium were empty Friday afternoon, but that won’t be the case when UVA returns to Bloomington on Saturday.
At 7:30 p.m., Virginia (1-0) meets Indiana (1-0) in a non-conference game to be televised by Big Ten Network. Rain is forecast for most of the day and night in Bloomington. For quarterback Bryce Perkins, this will be his first road game as a Cavalier, and he’s eager to test himself in front of a hostile crowd.
“Personally, I like away games so much,” Perkins said after a practice in Charlottesville this week. “I like that everybody’s going against you, everybody’s screaming at you. I live for that stuff. It gets me pumped.”
Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January, is a 6-3, 210-pound junior. In his Virginia debut, he passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more in a 42-13 win over Richmond at Scott Stadium last weekend.
Most of his production came after he had a pass intercepted and returned for a TD in the first quarter.
“There were a couple throws I wish I had back,” Perkins said, “but for the most part, after the pick, I thought we did a really good job of moving the ball and putting together consistent drives.
“We got a chance to see how we are as an offense, a little bit, and what we need to fix and clean up.”
He had some nerves before the opener, Perkins said, “but I think I did a pretty good job of not getting too jittery, my eyes not too big. But there were definitely a couple jitters, so I just tried to make consistent routine plays to get me going at first to help build it up and open it up.”
He completed 13 of 24 passes for 185 yards. He didn’t throw many deep balls, but he didn’t have to. The Cavaliers totaled 301 yards rushing, and the Spiders left underneath routes open.
“We were taking what the defense gave us, and I think we did a pretty good job with that,” Perkins said.
This is Bronco Mendenhall’s third season as the Wahoos’ head coach. In 2016 and ’17, UVA’s starting quarterback was Kurt Benkert, who had a powerful arm but lacked Perkins’ mobility.
“When we came here, this is what we had in mind, Bronco and myself, to be a physical threat with the football on the ground, be a threat that way,” said offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who was on Mendenhall’s staff at BYU. “It’s taken a couple years to get to this point, and we’re just starting.”
Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, transferred to UVA from Arizona Western College, where he starred last season.
“We’re glad to have him here,” Anae said. “He fits the University of Virginia as a student, and he’s a great addition to the team as well.”
The Hoosiers opened the season with a 38-28 win at Florida International last weekend. Junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 20 of 27 passes for 156 yards and three TDs, with one interception.
“He can run, he can throw, he’s the guy that makes that thing go,” said Kelly Poppinga, UVA’s co-defensive coordinator.
The Cavaliers learned that last year. At Scott Stadium, Ramsey replaced starter Richard Lagow, a pro-style quarterback, in the second quarter. The Hoosiers, who trailed 3-0 midway through the second quarter, rallied for a 34-17 win.
Lagow, who had thrown for 410 yards and three TDs against Ohio State in Indiana’s previous game, was 3 for 10 passing for 24 yards, with one interception, against UVA.
Ramsey had no such problems. He ran for a 26-yard touchdown and passed for 173 yards and two TDs. He completed his first 11 passes against a UVA defense that was caught off guard.
“It wasn’t on anyone’s radar that [the Hoosiers] might play a different quarterback,” Mendenhall said. “It certainly wasn’t on ours, based on the performance they had against Ohio State.
“We put all of our time, effort and energy into designing a plan that was very effective for that style. When Ramsey came in, it was a difficult challenge for us. It us a while to react … That changed the game.”
Even more significant, Mendenhall said, was the Hoosiers’ dominance on special teams. The game’s final TD came on a 44-yard punt return by Indiana’s J-Shun Harris.
From a team that finished 6-7 in 2017, UVA returned eight starters on defense, and that doesn’t include cornerback Tim Harris, who missed most of the season with an injury. Harris has 22 career starts.
The ‘Hoos allowed only 225 yards against Richmond, whose lone touchdown came on the interception return.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” inside linebacker Jordan Mack said of the defense’s performance, “but when you go back and look on film, you notice all the plays you left out there and how many notches you can turn it up. It’s a great starting point, but we have high expectations on this defense, so we’re definitely looking forward to this week.”
The Cavaliers’ defense, better in 2017 than in ’16, wants to take another step forward this season.
“I think that’s an expectation that’s been set by [the players],” Poppinga said. “I’m talking about Chris Peace, Jordan Mack, Juan Thornhill, Eli [Hanback]. We’ve got five or six guys right there that have started [since] 2016 … and they’re seeing that we’re getting better as a team, as a unit.
“I’m pleased to see that expectation that they’ve set for themselves, and I’m excited to see if they can hold themselves to it.”
The Cavaliers dominated in their opener, but Richmond competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Bigger challenges await his team, Mendenhall knows.
“Lots and lots to improve,” he said. “How good we are, or anyone else is, to be honest, it’s hard to say. But we’ll find out.”