By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Two weeks after severe weather near Scott Stadium delayed the start of its season opener, one week after it was subjected to torrents of rain at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., the University of Virginia football team played a home game some 540 miles from Charlottesville.
The Cavaliers’ third season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall is not even a month old, but it’s already tested them in unforeseen ways.
“It’s almost more than I can hope for in terms of resiliency training,” Mendenhall said Saturday night. “I’ve just got to [develop the team] to where it shows up on the field with higher execution.”
Virginia and Ohio originally were scheduled to meet Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium. Concerns about Hurricane Florence’s potential impact on Central Virginia, however, led UVA officials to explore alternate sites.
They settled on Nashville, a city to which Virginia athletics director Carla Williams, a former administrator at Vanderbilt, has strong ties. With the Commodores out of town Saturday, 40,550-seat Vanderbilt Stadium was available, and that’s where the Wahoos hosted the Bobcats on a hot, humid day in the Music City.
After building a 35-7 lead late in the first half, Virginia had to endure some anxious moments in the second half. Ultimately, though, the ‘Hoos prevailed 45-31 to improve their record to 2-1.
“I think the one thing we need to learn, especially on defense, is to finish teams off,” defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “When we’re up big, we just need to finish teams off. That’s just the mindset we need to make sure things like that don’t happen.”
Admission was free for this non-conference game, and a crowd of 5,438 witnessed career performances from several Cavaliers, most notably junior quarterback Bryce Perkins, senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus and senior running back Jordan Ellis.
Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January, completed 25 of 30 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns. Zaccheaus caught nine of those passes for a school-record 247 yards and two touchdowns. Elllis carried 19 times for 171 yards and three TDs.
“To be honest, we had more fans than I thought we would, but to us it didn’t matter,” Perkins said. “We were still going to come out there and execute either way. We’re just happy to play this game this week instead of having to sit out this week and then play Louisville [in the ACC opener] next week.”
The Cavaliers typically leave Charlottesville the day before a road game. This week they flew out on Thursday, and on Friday they had to change hotels, moving about 30 miles from Murfreesboro to Nashville.
“I think it was a good experience for us,” Hanback said. “We were here for two days. I think we were focused. Thank you to the Vanderbilt athletic department for letting us play here. We got the win, so I think everyone really enjoyed it.”
The first 28 minutes could not have been much more enjoyable for Virginia, which was coming off a 20-16 loss at Indiana. UVA had three one-play possessions in the first half, each of which ended with a touchdown. The first came on Ellis’ 18-yard run, the second on Zaccheaus’ 86-yard reception, and the third on Ellis’ 75-yard run.
“The early part of the game was ridiculous in terms of explosive plays that we gave up,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said.
With 1:58 left in the first half Saturday, the ‘Hoos led 35-7 and had the ball on their 34. They chose to remain aggressive, and they paid for their boldness. The Bobcats sacked Perkins, forcing a fumble that they recovered. Ohio then scored on a long pass, recovered a line-drive kickoff and scored on another long pass, all in a span of 37 seconds.
The Cavaliers closed the half with a 32-yard field goal by sophomore A.J. Mejia, but their once-commanding lead had shrunk to 17.
On its first possession of the second half, Ohio mounted another TD drive, and suddenly it was 38-28. Not until the 6:01 mark of the fourth quarter did the ‘Hoos score in the second half, on a third-and-4 pass to Zaccheaus that he turned into 77-yard touchdown.
“Biggest play of the game,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers totaled 552 yards Saturday. Still, Perkins said, “I think offensively we kind of lost our momentum going into halftime and coming out of halftime. We need to do a better job of keeping our foot on the gas and making consistent plays and marching the ball down the field.”
The game should provide valuable lessons for his team, Mendenhall said.
“About every scenario possible that we can assess and work on, we got,” he said.
REDEMPTION: In the loss to Indiana, Zaccheaus had five receptions for only 15 yards and in the second half dropped a well-thrown pass from Perkins that would have given the Cavaliers a critical first down.
“We didn’t need to say a word to him,” Mendenhall said. “He knew. We’re transparent. We’re really honest. Grades are posted. Everyone can see them. But they know before they even see the numbers.”
Zaccheaus said: “I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the backbone of the team, especially on offense. So after last week, I just had to get back to the drawing board, get back to the fundamentals and basics and little things.”
As a junior in 2017, Zaccheaus set a single-season school record with 85 receptions. In the season opener against Richmond this month, he caught six passes for 101 yards and a TD.
“An effective Olamide in Game 1 and Game 3 changes the outcome,” Mendenhall said.
After the game Saturday night, director of football performance and development Shawn Griswold handed a sledgehammer to Zaccheaus, who smashed a rock on the floor of the locker room, signifying a UVA victory.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Hanback recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in a UVA win over Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium.
He came agonizingly close to scoring another TD on Saturday. On the game’s first series, UVA outside linebacker Chris Peace sacked quarterback Nathan Rourke, jarring the ball loose, and Hanback fell on the fumble at the Ohio 18-yard line.
“On the first ball, I picked it up and everyone was like, ‘Oh, Eli, you should have scooped and scored,’ ” Hanback said. “You’re not thinking that you’re going to get two opportunities at that in a game, and what do you know, I got the second opportunity.”
Early in the second quarter, UVA defensive end Richard Burney tackled running back A.J. Ouellette, forcing a fumble that Hanback scooped up at the Ohio 20. The 6-4, 300-pound junior took off for the end zone.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been running in open grass with the ball in my hand,” said Hanback, who hadn’t done so since his youth league days.
“I saw someone coming to my right, and I went to shift the ball to my other hand. I should have put two arms over it. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. But it just fell. It just dropped out of my hands.”
Ohio recovered the fumble at 1-yard line.
“Ball security,” Ellis said with a smile when asked about Hanback’s near-touchdown.
GAME BALLS: In addition to the obvious choices – Zaccheau, Ellis and Perkins — numerous other Cavaliers distinguished themselves in the opener. They included:
* Outside linebacker Zane Zandier, a 6-3, 235-pound sophomore from Pittsburgh. With sixth-year senior Malcolm Cook out with an injury, Zandier started Saturday. He had a game-high 10 tackles and had a hand in two sacks.
* Reserve running back Chris Sharp, a 6-1, 195-pound junior from Princeton, N.J. Sharp, who caught a touchdown pass from Perkins against Indiana, sealed off an Ohio defender with a textbook block on Ellis’ second touchdown Saturday.
* Junior cornerback Bryce Hall, a 6-1, 200-pound junior from Harrisburg, Pa. Hall broke up four passes Saturday, including a fourth-and-3 throw by Rourke on the final play of the third quarter.
“We knew they had momentum, they were driving a little bit, and I just felt like as a secondary, as a unit, we had been giving up some big plays,” Hall said. “And so when the time came, I wanted to do everything I could to get a stop for our team, so I was ready for it as soon as it came.”
* Wideout Hasise Dubois, a 6-3, 215-pound junior from Irvington, N.J. Dubois had a career-best six receptions for 69 yards and one TD against Ohio. He also contributed the block that kept Zaccheaus untouched on his 86-yard touchdown.
SOUND BITES: There were no formal press conferences after the game, but the head coaches and several players conducted interviews at one end of the field. Among the noteworthy comments:
* Mendenhall on Mejia, who missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter: “We need more consistency, especially in the critical moments.”
For the season, Mejia is 1 for 3 on field goals. He’s made all of his extra points.
* Ellis on UVA’s offense: “We showed today that we can score at any moment, from anywhere on the field. We’ve just got to be consistent throughout the game. We had a lot of penalties, a lot of mental errors. We’ve got to clean that up and go into ACC play strong.”
* Ellis on the speed he showed on his 75-yard TD run: “It was definitely a confidence-booster for me, but I’ve been breaking long runs all spring practice and all fall camp. Putting it in game action is definitely gratifying. That’s what all the work I put in in the offseason is for. It definitely paid off.”
* Hall on Zandier: “That dude’s an animal. He’s everywhere. He’s playing hard, practicing hard. It was no surprise how he played today, because I’ve seen it in practice.”
* Ellis on Zaccheaus: “He can score from literally any point on the field. He has everything that you would want in a dynamic playmaker, and we’re lucky to have him.”
FAMILIAR FACE: Virginia’s radio team of Dave Koehn and Tony Covington had a special guest on their pregame show: Tennessee Titans wide receiver Darius Jennings.
Jennings, whose final season at UVA was 2014, began his NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. He’s in his second season with the Titans and last weekend returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins.
A graduate of the Gilman School in Baltimore, Jennings ranks first at UVA in career kickoff return yards (1,839). He’s seventh in career receptions (133), 10th in career receiving yards (1,667) and 12th in career all-purpose yards (3,719).
LOCAL CONNECTION: Sarah Lopez, who grew up near Charlottesville, sang the national anthem while accompanying herself on guitar Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium.
A graduate of Western Albemarle High School in Crozet, Lopez is a freshman at Vandy.
UP NEXT: Virginia (2-1) opens ACC play against Louisville (2-1) next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium. Regional Sports Networks will televise the game.
The Cardinals, who lost 51-14 to Alabama in their season opener, rallied to defeat visiting Western Kentucky 20-17 on Saturday night.
UVA has dropped three straight to Louisville. The Cards hold a 4-2 lead in the series, which started in 1988.