By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – For the University of Virginia football team, the margin for error remains uncomfortably small. That was apparent on a miserable night at Indiana University’s Memorial Stadium, where sheets of rain lashed the field for most of the game.
In 2017, when the Cavaliers advanced to the postseason for the first time in 2011, they needed late-game defensive stops to secure three of their six victories.
UVA found itself in another tight game Saturday night. This time, the Wahoos walked off the field disappointed. On the final play of the game, Virginia snapped the ball from the Indiana 27-yard line. Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins’ pass into the end zone fell incomplete, and the Hoosiers escaped with a 20-16 victory.
The difference in such games, said Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia’s third-year coach, “is one or two plays, for either team.”
This game turned in Indiana’s favor in the first quarter, when, with the score tied 7-7, UVA junior Joe Reed fumbled while returning a kickoff. The Hoosiers recovered at the Virginia 21, and two plays later they had their second touchdown.
The Cavaliers (1-1) fought back. Senior safety Juan Thornhill blocked Indiana’s extra-point attempt, scooped up the ball and returned it almost the length of the field for a 2-point conversion. That made it 13-9, and sophomore linebacker Charles Snowden later blocked another Indiana kick, this one a field-goal attempt. Still, UVA’s lone turnover proved costly.
“When you consider a game that goes right down to the very last play, every possession counts,” Mendenhall said.
At halftime, the Hoosiers (2-0) led 20-9. Indiana gained 201 yards in the second half, but UVA’s defense never broke.
“I think it was a tale of two halves,” Mendenhall said. “We were tentative in half one and more assertive and aggressive in half two today.”
Referencing a couple of the Cavaliers’ gritty wins from last season, Mendenhall said: “That urgency and that mindset and that competitive spirit, I saw more in the second half than the first.”
Perkins said: “If we could play both halves like that, it’d be a different outcome.”
Midway through the third quarter, UVA’s grit was rewarded. Perkins tossed a 20-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Chris Sharp, and sophomore A.J. Mejia’s PAT made it 20-16.
The Cavaliers’ next three possessions ended with Lester Coleman punts. But after UVA’s defense stopped the Hoosiers one last time, its offense took over with 3:23 left, 91 yards from the end zone.
The ‘Hoos (1-1) picked up three first downs on the drive, the last of which moved the ball to the Indiana 36 with 35 seconds left. But the big play UVA needed never materialized. A penalty on Indiana gave the Cavaliers an untimed play with all zeroes showing on the clock, and offensive coordinator Robert Anae called for a Hail Mary.
“There’s three players that will go up for the ball, and then a player that will slide in behind in case it’s tipped or knocked forward,” Mendenhall said.
“It was a nice throw. There was a bunch of hands that went up, and sometimes you come down with it and sometimes you don’t. But Bryce gave us a chance.”
Perkins had a 47-yard run on the game’s first drive, a possession that ended with his 1-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. But the Hoosiers adjusted their defense after that opening drive. The 6-3, 210-pound Perkins finished with 123 yards rushing, but few came easily.
A week after totaling 492 yards in a 42-13 win over Richmond at Scott Stadium, Virginia gained only 294 against Indiana, which controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game. Perkins passed for 106 yards Saturday night, but much of that came on two completions: a 24-yarder to junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois and Sharp’s 20-yard TD.
Senior running back Jordan Ellis, who ran for a career-best 146 yards against the Spiders, gained 63 on 12 carries Saturday night.
“Coming out here and underperforming, taking a loss on the road to a team that we feel like we matched up well against, it’s frustrating,” Zaccheaus said, “but at the same time it exposed a lot of things that we need to correct and fix.
“We just need to move forward and learn from the mistakes. We know what we’re capable of doing.”
The Cavaliers’ defense was far from flawless, too. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, the hero of the Hoosiers’ 34-17 win at Scott Stadium last season, again hurt the ‘Hoos. Ramsey completed 16 of 22 passes for 150 yards and two TDs Saturday night and rushed for 27 yards.
On a rough night for UVA’s secondary, Indiana receivers came down with several 50/50 balls. And then there was Stevie Scott.
A 6-2, 236-pound freshman, Scott rushed 31 times for 204 yards and one TD.
“Credit to them,” Virginia defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “They ran the ball really well, their offensive line played really well. But we have to get better with that. Two hundred yards is unacceptable.”
Mendenhall agreed. He noted, however, that holding an opponent to “20 points gives you a great chance to win the game. So regardless of what other statistics happen, 20 points, you’ll always be in the game.”
Virginia was in this game until the final play. That wasn’t much consolation to the Cavaliers, especially their offense.
“We can’t afford to come out sluggish the first half,” Perkins said. “We have to put drives together. We’ve got to execute. Most important, we’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot: a holding call here, a penalty here, just little stuff that prevents a drive from going the distance.”
WHAT THIS MEANS: With a chance to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 2012, the Cavaliers faltered.
During the 2017 regular season, Virginia posted a 3-1 record in non-conference games. To equal that mark this fall, the ‘Hoos will have to beat Ohio on Saturday and Liberty on Nov. 10.
WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS: Flash flood warnings were in effect across the Hoosier State on Saturday, and the weather kept most fans away from Memorial Stadium. For the players, the conditions were less than ideal, but that’s not why UVA lost, Zaccheaus said.
“The weather isn’t an excuse for anything,” he said. “We still have to execute on doing the routine things, catching the ball or whatever. Because Indiana was able to do that.”
Mendenhall said: “The weather, it affected both teams, and it changed the style of play, and it took a little while, I think, to see how the game was going to be played and what you could do and what you couldn’t do with the weather. So maybe that contributed to some of the feeling out nature of the first half.”
MIXED BAG: Safety Joey Blount, a sophomore from the Atlanta area, finished with 13 tackles, three more than his previous career high. He also was penalized twice for pass interference.
“This is a growing process,” Blount said. “I’m going to learn from my mistakes, and I hope next week I come out better.”
STEPPING UP: Thornhill, a third-team All-ACC selection at cornerback last season, contributed several big plays Saturday night for UVA.
Before Thornhill’s special-teams gem in the first quarter, the Cavaliers had not scored a defensive extra point since Joe Crocker did so in 1994. Thornhill also made seven tackles and intercepted a pass.
SOUND BITES: Before departing Memorial Stadium, Mendenhall and several players fielded questions from reporters. Among the Cavaliers’ comments:
* Mendenhall on the offensive line’s performance: “I think we struggled. Bryce is very active, and so he was hard to [tackle], and he created and did a lot of things on his own. Indiana kept our run game going lateral more than downhill for a lot of the night, which mitigated some of Jordan Ellis’ effectiveness.”
* Mendenhall on the Hoosiers’ success on the ground: “We didn’t think they’d be able to run the football effectively. And so we learned a lot about our team today. [Defensive coordinator Nick] Howell and the defensive coaches made some adjustments in the second half, but there’s a lot of takeaways there we’re going to have to work on.”
* Perkins: “I took a couple hits, but nothing really serious. This is why we lift in the offseason, to be able to withstand those hits.”
* Snowden, who stands 6-7, on the field goal he blocked: “The tight end kind of had a weird stance. He had his inside foot back, and I saw a crease. And I’d been out there and I felt like I hadn’t done anything to help the team thus far, so I knew had to do something soon. I just gave it my all and got my hand up.”
* Ellis: “It was just a lot of sloppy play by our offense. I feel like we really couldn’t get in a rhythm like we did last week. We’ve got to clean that up in practice next week and get ready for the next opponent.
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers play back-to-back games at Scott Stadium. Virginia hosts Ohio (1-0) at 3 p.m. next Saturday. The Bobcats were off this weekend.
On Sept. 22, UVA hosts Louisville (1-1) in the ACC opener for both teams. The starting time for that game is expected to be announced Monday.
Virginia’s ACC road opener is Sept. 29 against NC State at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. In the teams’ most recent meeting, on Nov. 3, 2012, the ‘Hoos defeated the Wolfpack 33-6 in Raleigh.
UVA and Ohio have faced each other only once in football. In 1993, the Cavaliers routed the Bobcats 41-7 at Scott Stadium.