By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Progress for an ascendant football program can be fitful. Not every game is a step forward. Still, in Bronco Mendenhall’s third season as Virginia’s head coach, the signs are encouraging.
In its ACC opener Saturday afternoon, UVA defeated Louisville 27-3 at Scott Stadium. Not since 2010 had the Cardinals been held without a touchdown in a regular-season game.
For the Cavaliers (3-1 overall), this marked the first time since 2009 they’d held an ACC opponent without a touchdown.
“It was not perfect, but it was 27-3,” Mendenhall said.
He was confident entering the game, Mendenhall said, because his players “are becoming more resilient and more confident,” and he told his wife, Holly, on Friday night that he expected UVA to win.
“Rarely do I say that to her or anyone else, but there’s a different level of confidence that’s coming with this team and program,” Mendenhall said. “It does not mean we’ve arrived. It doesn’t mean there’s not things to work on, but I’m seeing it unfold.”
The biggest change this season, junior cornerback Bryce Hall said, is “our mindset and our expectation. We have a high standard for ourselves that we set. We expect to win. I think that’s something that’s huge, because in the past years here, we would be out there kind of wishing and hoping.”
After the game Saturday, former UVA defensive back Kirk Garner, now a graduate assistant at his alma mater, joyfully greeted players as they entered the locker room.
“Now, that’s a game!” Garner yelled to outside linebacker Charles Snowden.
A 6-7, 225-pound sophomore, Snowden is his teammates’ choice as the Cavalier most likely to be elected President of the United States one day. He’s also a burgeoning force on defense.
Against the Cardinals (2-2 overall, 0-1 ACC), Snowden made a career-high eight tackles, recorded one sack, broke up two passes, recovered a fumble, and intercepted a pass that he returned 23 yards. In the locker room after the game, a sledgehammer was handed to Snowden, who had the honor of smashing a rock to signify a UVA victory.
“I don’t know where the limit is with him,” Mendenhall said. “The size, the range, the speed, but also the type of person. Those type of people, they maximize their abilities, and it’ll be fun to watch, and I think it’ll happen pretty quickly for him.”
This was a complete performance by the Wahoos. Behind quarterback Bryce Perkins, who wowed the crowd, his teammates and his coaches with his displays of otherworldly athleticism, UVA gained 401 yards. Its defense held Louisville to 214 yards, only 66 of which came on the ground.
The Cavaliers forced three turnovers and galvanized their offense with a third-quarter goal-line stand. The Cards, trailing 6-0, had returned an interception 34 yards to the UVA 3, but their next three plays netted zero yards, and they had to settle for a field goal.
“We knew at that point that if they scored it was going to be a really tight game,” UVA defensive lineman Mandy Alonso said. “It would have changed the outcome of the game, maybe. We held it down and knew what we had to do.”
Perkins said: “That was huge. The defense did a great job of dialing up the energy [after the] interception. That was on me.
“We talked about it on the sideline together: ‘All right, the defense is doing their job. Now it’s time for us to open it up and get it going for them.’ “
On the next series, Perkins took over. On first-and-10 from UVA’s 49, the 6-3, 215-pound junior dropped back, eluded a pass-rusher and then took off running. Around the Louisville 25, Perkins encountered another defender, safety Dee Smith, and hurdled over him.
“It was just muscle reaction,” Perkins said. “I saw [Smith] go down a little bit, so my body just instinctively jumped over him.”
The Cards finally dragged Perkins down at the 15.
“That just juices everybody up,” Hall said of Perkins’ highlight-reel plays. “That dude’s a different breed. Any time you can electrify the whole stadium, that just makes it more alive, and when [the defense comes] on, we have more energy.
“It energizes the whole team. He’s creative, and he’s a heck of a player. We’re lucky to have him on our team.”
Three plays after his 36-yard run, Perkins passed to junior running back Chris Sharp for a 3-yard touchdown.
He wasn’t done. Early in the fourth quarter, he teamed with junior wideout Joe Reed on a 44-yard TD pass. Then, with 6:14 left, Perkins reached the end zone himself, on an 8-yard run capped by another leap over a Cardinal.
“When you try to tackle him in the open field, if you’re just by yourself, good luck with that,” Mendenhall said.
Perkins, who rushed for 78 yards, finished 17-of-24 passing for 197 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. Much of that production came after he dislocated the pinky on his throwing hand.
“Who needs pinkies?” Perkins said after the game, an ice bag on his right hand.
He suffered the injury while trying to catch a pass from junior wideout Hasise Dubois on a trick play late in the second quarter.
“I saw him get up and hold his hand, and my first question was, ‘Is that his throwing arm?’ ” Mendenhall said.
UVA’s medical team responded in the affirmative, “and so then there’s kind of your life’s work flashing in front of your face really quick,” Mendenhall said. “And then I looked up and I saw Brennan just kind of smiling and playing catch, like, ‘OK, I get to play.’ The game isn’t too big for him.”
Brennan Armstrong, a true freshman who like Perkins enrolled at Virginia in January, came in and promptly gained 34 yards on a quarterback draw. The drive stalled at the Louisville 6, but his classmate Hunter Pearson’s 24-yard field goal made it 6-0.
Perkins returned for the Cavaliers’ final possession of the second quarter and played most of the second half.
“It will be all right,” he said of his pinky. “It’s a little sore, a little swollen right now. It just kind of got dislocated a bit, but nothing too serious. I’ll get in the training room tomorrow, ice it and go through a rehab.”
WHAT THIS MEANS: For the second straight year, UVA is 3-1 after four games. In 2017, the Cavaliers finished the regular season with a 6-6 record to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
Louisville came to Charlottesville on a three-game winning streak against Virginia.
PASSING THE TORCH: In each of his first two seasons at UVA, Mendenhall handled most of the defensive-coordinator duties. He’s taken a step back this season, allowing defensive coordinator and secondary coach Nick Howell, co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, defensive line coach Vic So’oto, and inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter to assume more responsibility.
All four are former graduate assistants under Mendenhall.
“We’ve been together for a long time,” he said. “I was as happy for them as anyone. I still kind of view them as players, and my role is more oversight now in all phases of our program: defense, offense and special teams. I didn’t call a defensive play today. Nick Howell did an amazing job, and Kelly.”
NEXT MAN UP: Junior Richard Burney, one of Virginia’s starting defensive linemen, was a late scratch for medical reasons, which meant extended playing time Saturday for Alonso, a sophomore, and true freshmen Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui.
Redmond had 1.5 tackles for loss, and Faumui had a sack for a 6-yard loss. Alonso made three tackles in his best effort of the season.
“The first three games, I wasn’t pleased with my performance at all,” said Alonso, who missed most of training camp with a high-ankle sprain.
“I felt like I was in a sophomore slump or whatever you call it. I was really down about how my performance has been, and I felt like this week I had to take a big step [forward] and come out and play.”
GAME BALLS: Snowden and Perkins weren’t the Cavaliers’ only standouts Saturday. Others included:
* Offensive tackle Bobby Haskins, a 6-7, 280-pound true freshman from Fairfield, Conn. A first-quarter injury to starting left guard Chris Glaser, who later returned, forced UVA to revamp its offensive line. Haskins didn’t start Saturday, but he ended up playing much of the game at left tackle.
Haskins, who enrolled at UVA in January, played tight end in high school until his senior year.
“We love Bobby,” Mendenhall said. “He’s tough and he’s aggressive. I love his mindset. I love his athleticism.”
* Place-kicker Hunter Pearson, a 6-2, 210-pound true freshman from Seneca, S.C. He lost a competition with sophomore A.J. Mejia during the week, but Pearson took over Saturday after Mejia badly missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter.
Pearson was 2 for 2 on field goals, connecting from 28 and 24 yards, and made all three of his extra points. For the season, Mejia is 1 for 4 on field goals.
* Inside linebacker Zane Zandier, a 6-3, 232-pound sophomore from Pittsburgh. In his second start as a Cavalier, Zandier made seven tackles. Most memorable was his third-down tackle for loss on UVA’s goal-line stand.
* Cornerback Bryce Hall, a 6-1, 200-pound junior from Harrisburg, Pa. He finished with seven tackles and an interception, which he returned 19 yards.
THEY SAID IT: The Cavaliers had plenty to talk about after the game. Among the noteworthy comments:
* Mendenhall on Virginia’s 6-0 halftime lead: “I didn’t have to say a word [in the locker room]. Our offensive coaches, they know touchdowns win games. Field goals will get you the lead, but they don’t put you out of harm’s way or out of risk.”
* Snowden, who played wideout on offense in high school, on his interception: “I’ve had a few drops in practice recently. Honestly, when I caught it I was a bit surprised, but it worked out.”
* Sharp on Perkins: “Bryce is an amazing athlete, not just a quarterback. He still sometimes surprises me. With his hurdles today, I was telling him, ‘You got a lot of height on those.’ It’s exciting watching him play. It’s exciting playing with him.”
* Perkins: “You can feel the energy shift when big plays happen. Not just on mine. When the defense is playing great, when they get an interception or a fumble or a sack you can feel the energy on the sideline.”
* Reed on Armstrong’s 34-yard run: “Honestly, we weren’t surprised, because we’ve seen Brennan make plays like that all through spring and all throughout fall camp. It was just a matter of him having this opportunity to showcase what he is capable of.”
* Reed on the Cavaliers’ progress: “Honestly, I can just tell by the body language. Body language tells everything, especially throughout the week. Walking in McCue at 6 o’clock in the morning, it’s just a different feeling. Guys actually want to be there. It’s not like we have to be there. And we’re expecting to win every game.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Virginia plays its first ACC road game next weekend. At 12:20 p.m. Saturday, UVA meets NC State (3-0) at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Raycom Sports will televise the game.
This will be the ACC opener for State, which defeated Marshall on Saturday night.
The Wolfpack leads the series 34-22-1. In the teams’ most recent meeting, Virginia won 33-6 at Carter-Finley Stadium on Nov. 3, 2012.