By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The football schedule called for Virginia to play three of its first four games at Scott Stadium, starting with the Sept. 1 season opener against Richmond.
Then Mother Nature intervened. Because of concerns over the potential impact of Hurricane Florence on Central Virginia, UVA officials moved the Sept. 15 game against Ohio to sunny Nashville, Tenn.
At Vanderbilt Stadium, the Cavaliers defeated the Bobcats 45-31. And now, on the fourth weekend of the season, they’ll finally play their second true home game.
“We’re just excited to be back at Scott Stadium this week,” junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois said.
At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, in the ACC opener for both teams, Virginia (2-1) hosts Louisville (2-1). It’s Military Appreciation Day at Scott Stadium.
“After a very unique and challenging week a week ago, we’re anxious to play at home at a normal time at the normal venue against an ACC team,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “which adds a sense of normalcy and a great opportunity for us to kind of move onto the next phase of our season.”
Virginia has dropped three straight in the series, losing 38-31 to the Cardinals in 2015, 32-25 in ’16, and 38-21 last season. Those Louisville teams, however, had Lamar Jackson, who’s now a rookie quarterback with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.
Against Jackson, Mendenhall said, “normal defense really isn’t something that was effective. You always had to have at least one number accounting for him, preferably two, which then means you can’t play normal defense.”
Louisville has used two quarterbacks this season: redshirt junior Jawon Pass and redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham. The 6-1, 190-pound Cunningham rushed for 129 yards last weekend in the Cardinals’ comeback win over Western Kentucky, and he’s expected to make his first start Saturday.
“He’s a dynamic athlete, for sure,” Mendenhall said of Cunningham. “He doesn’t yet possess the ability to throw the ball or the complete set of skills that Lamar has, but if you’re talking just about athleticism, that’s the closest [area] where he might compare.”
Kelly Poppinga, Virginia’s co-defensive coordinator, said the Cards’ offensive philosophy hasn’t changed much since Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2016, left for the NFL. The ‘Hoos can still count on seeing lots of “QB-designed runs,” Poppinga said.
“Obviously, [Cunningham is] younger, and so in reading defenses and things like that, I think he’s still trying to get caught up to the level that they want him at. But I think the offense will be designed just like it was for Lamar Jackson, because the guy’s very similar.”
Virginia hasn’t needed to rotate quarterbacks. Junior-college transfer Bryce Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January, won the starting job in the spring and has impressed practice in his first three games.
A 6-3, 215-pound junior, Perkins has carried 48 times for 239 yards and two touchdowns. He’s completed 50 of 78 passes for 670 yards and seven TDs, with only one interception.
That Perkins could extend plays with his feet was never in doubt. His improvement as a passer, though, has allowed UVA “to throw and catch the ball at a higher level than any of us thought we would this early on,” Mendenhall said.
In each of Virginia’s first two games – a 42-13 win over Richmond and a 20-16 loss at Indiana – Perkins rushed for more than 100 yards. Against Ohio, he ran for only 8 yards, but he completed 25 of 30 passes, and running back Jordan Ellis and wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Dubois had big games for the Cavaliers.
“I just like winning, to be honest,” Perkins told reporters Monday. “If I’ve got to carry the ball 25 times to win or 10 times to win, we have great players around everywhere, so it doesn’t matter. Somebody’s going to get most of the load and somebody’s going to make the big plays.”
Scoring “touchdowns is great,” Perkins said, “but if we’re not winning, it doesn’t mean anything. [Anything] the coaches think I can do to win, it doesn’t matter. I’ll do it.”
In a game played in torrential rain for much of the evening, UVA’s offense totaled only 294 yards at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium.
“The mistakes that we had and the setback that we had at Indiana is totally on us,” Perkins said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of adjusting to the circumstance. When things are not going your way, you’ve got to get back to the basics and do the little plays right that then eventually lead up to big plays.”
Zaccheaus dropped several passes against the Hoosiers and finished with only 15 yards on five receptions.
Afterward, he recalled Monday, “I was sick to my stomach, I just didn’t perform well at all. I kind of let the external factors affect my mindset and my play and performance. I had a great week of work [ahead of the game] and then it started to rain and I kind of forgot about all that work I put in. I’ve just got to trust that and go back to work and be ready for any situation.”
Zaccheaus, who in 2017 set a UVA single-season record with 85 catches, returned to form, and then some, in Nashville. Against Ohio (1-1), he caught nine passes for a program-record 247 yards and two touchdowns. His first TD covered 86 yards; the second, 77 yards.
“Obviously, it’s historic,” Zaccheaus said Monday, “and something that I’m going to take time to acknowledge. But at the same time, we have another game this upcoming week to prepare for. I can’t hang my hat on last week. I have to find ways to get better.”
He may not be done setting school records. With 177 career receptions, Zaccheaus ranks third all-time at UVA, behind former stars Taquan Mizzell (195) and Billy McMullen (210). With 2,058 career receiving yards, Zaccheaus is seventh.
“It’s something I was cognizant of before the year,” he said, “but it just comes down to being prepared each week, having a process and plan. I can’t be [worried] that I need this many receptions this week or whatever. I just need to focus on the process of things, and everything else will take care of itself.”
Zaccheaus, a senior, is an ACC veteran. For Perkins, this will be his first game in the conference.
“I’m really excited,” Perkins said. “I love challenging games. I love hard, cut-throat games like that. It gets me going, and I’m excited to see all the goals we set as an offense and as a team and how they’re going to hold up as we start conference play.”