By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– On the home sideline, after Virginia had finally taken the lead Saturday night, defensive coordinator Nick Howell exhorted his charges to keep pushing, to keep applying pressure.
“Let’s tattoo these guys!” Howell yelled.
His defense did as instructed. For the game, the Cavaliers sacked Old Dominion quarterback Stone Smartt six times, and three of them came in the final seven minutes. That capped a defensive tour de force that also included an interception return for a touchdown by junior linebacker Zane Zandier.
The Monarchs, who had 224 yards of offense in the first half, finished with 270. Led by junior linebacker Charles Snowden, Virginia recorded 11 tackles for loss in a 28-17 victory over ODU.
“The defense came up huge tonight, and we really appreciated them getting us going,” senior wide receiver Joe Reed said.
On a night when UVA’s offense sputtered much more often than it hummed, the defense struggled early, too. A 47-yard touchdown pass from Smartt to running back Matt Geiger put the Monarchs up 17-0 with 10:32 left in the second quarter, stunning the Wahoos and their fans.
“It was mindset, honestly, and tackling and doing your job and executing,” UVA co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said, “and we did not do that the first quarter and a half.
“The second half of the second quarter, we finally showed the type of defense we can be, and that’s what it comes down to. Your edge can never come off in this game, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, and I think we walked into that game thinking that these guys weren’t a good team.”
The Cavaliers (4-0) went into the break trailing 17-7. Their offense did nothing on the first possession of the third quarter, but the defense rescued them. Under pressure from Snowden, Smartt threw an ill-advised passed that Zandier, wearing a cast on this right hand, picked off and returned 22 yards for a TD that awoke the Hoos and their supporters.
“Coach Howell always likes to say that there’s no rule that the defense can’t score,” Snowden said. “We saw that this team needed a spark, and Zane made a heck of a play.”
Not until the fourth quarter, however, did Virginia take its first lead, and again the defense played a leading role. With about 11 minutes remaining and his team facing fourth-and-1 from its 29-yard line, ODU head coach Bobby Wilder gambled. In 2018, the Monarchs upset Virginia Tech, and they wanted to earn another signature win in Charlottesville.
The Hoos refused to cooperate. Junior safety Joey Blount sliced through the line and tackled Smartt for no gain.
“That was the momentum that we needed,” Reed said.
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins hit senior tight end Tanner Cowley on a seam route that gained 22 yards, and then sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa took a handoff and bulled his way into the end zone with 10:16 to play.
After Virginia’s defense forced a three-and-out by the Monarchs (1-2), its offense drove 58 yards for another TD. Reed was the story of this possession. Moments after drawing a pass-interference penalty on a post route, he caught a short pass from Perkins, juked a defender and then sprinted to the end zone to complete a 25-yard play.
Of the Cavaliers’ 244 yards of offense, 132 came in the final quarter.
“Playing from behind is a challenge,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We pulled off the comeback, which is way better than the alternative. Defensively, we adjusted faster mindset-wise and production-wise than we did offensively throughout the day.
“Old Dominion showed up ready and hungry and eager to play. It took us and our program much longer to reach that same state.”
The Hoos were coming off an emotional victory over Florida State, and they play No. 7 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, next weekend.
“It’s hard to be on edge every game for every opponent at the level you need to, and certainly that’s not where we were today,” Mendenhall said. “I wish I could say that I saw it coming during the week. I didn’t. My job is to try and see it and fix it if we can do it before it happens. But luckily, enough players and enough of the team responded in game to pull a win out.
“Coming back from 17 is not easy. Before I just hang my head about [the team’s performance], we came back from 17 [down], which is pretty hard to do.”
The comeback was the Cavaliers’ largest since 2004, when they erased a 21-0 deficit in a win over North Carolina at Scott Stadium. In each of the Hoos’ three games this season against FBS foes, they’ve trailed at halftime.
“Last year we wouldn’t have [pulled off] a 17-point comeback,” said Dillon Reinkensmeyer, a redshirt junior. “This year we did, so we’re thankful for the win, and we live to fight another week.”
NEXT MAN UP: Redshirt sophomore Olusegun Oluwatimi, who started the first three games at center, suffered a hand injury against Florida State and wasn’t able to snap Saturday night. He played briefly at guard.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Fannin started at center against ODU but left the game with an injury late in the third quarter. In came Reinkensmeyer, who started 12 games at center in 2018 but had been playing tackle this season.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, to be totally honest,” Reinkensmeyer said with a smile when asked snapping the ball without the benefit of warming up.
Mendenhall said it’s unclear how long Oluwatimi will be sidelined.
GAME BALLS: For the first time since 2004, the Cavaliers are 4-0. Their standouts against ODU included:
• Snowden, who was Mendendall’s choice to break the rock in the locker room, signifying a Virginia victory. The 6-7, 235-pound junior finished with a career-best 15 tackles, including two sacks for 13 yards in losses.
“He was all over the field with that 6-7 frame, making plays,” UVA junior linebacker Rob Snyder said.
At St. Albans School in Washington, DC., Snowden was better known as a basketball player, and he weighed only 202 pounds when he enrolled at Virginia in the summer of 2017. A project then, he’s now a dynamic presence at outside linebacker in UVA’s 3-4 defense.
• Zandier, who had four tackles and a game-changing interception.
“When you have the opportunity to make a play and you’re able to make it,” Zandier said, “it’s special and it’s a lot of fun out there.”
• Reed, who had four receptions for 40 yards and a TD and returned four kickoffs for 119 yards, with a long of 57.
“Good things happen when Joe Reed gets the ball,” former UVA star Olamide Zaccheaus tweeted Saturday night.
* Perkins, who ran for Virginia’s first touchdown, eluding defenders on fourth-and-2 from the ODU 8-yard line. He also completed 15 of 24 passes for 175 yards and one TD, and he wasn’t intercepted.
“I thought Bryce Perkins showed a lot of heart,” Mendenhall said, “and, again, without him, we don’t win.”
• Linebackers Jordan Mack and Matt Gahm, who had nine tackles apiece. Mack, a senior, and Gahm, a junior, also each had a tackle for loss.
Mack has had at least one sack in each of his past six games.
THEY SAID IT: This was the first-ever football game between these schools. They’ll meet in Norfolk next season and at Scott Stadium again in 2022. Among the postgame comments Saturday night:
• Snowden on the Cavaliers’ second interception return for a TD this season: “I believe it was a screen, and I was just trying to chase the quarterback. My man left, so I didn’t do anything phenomenal. I was kind of unblocked. [Smartt] hesitated, and then when he hesitated I was able to hit him, Zane intercepted it, and the rest is history.”
• Poppinga: “We were looking for a play that would ignite the crowd, bring the energy. Zane’s did that, and then the fourth-down stop [by Blount] as well was a huge play. I think in general our defense stepped up and did what they had to do.”
• Wilder on the Cavaliers’ pass rush: “A lot of blitz. Their defensive coordinator is outstanding, and they dialed up some really good zone fires. They put us in a lot of one-on-ones, and we just couldn’t handle it enough.”
• Mendenhall on ODU’s decision to go for it on fourth down from its 29-yard line: “Head coaches have to make some tough decisions, and Coach Wilder and their team, they came to win.”
• Wilder: “We came here to win, and that is how we tried to play today … You’ve got to give UVA a lot of credit. That is a really good defense.”
• Mendenhall on why the Cavaliers’ offense struggled for much of the game: “I’m really not sure. I looked for signs all week, and so it caught me off guard. I didn’t see signs during the week that indicated that our edge might not be on. The looks that we saw tonight in game were the exact same looks that we practiced against, so even though ODU had a bye [last weekend] it wasn’t now some radically new plan that we saw. Our preparation was in relation to what they did. Obviously, we just didn’t execute it with the urgency and precision that we needed to. And that’s to their credit as well.”
• Snowden on UVA’s latest comeback: “I think it kind of shows how tough and how resilient this team is. We know late in the season as we go through ACC play that if we get down early, we can look back and say, ‘We’ve done it twice already this year. No need to worry, stress, panic.’ We know that if we battle back and play Virginia football, that we can do that.”
• Zandier on whether he believes UVA suffered a letdown after defeating Florida State: “Not really. These games get crazy. It’s college football. You see it across the country, teams that shouldn’t win, win. It could go either way every week and it’s not always pretty, but a win’s a win.”
NEXT UP: The Cavaliers are headed to one of the sport’s storied environments. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, in a non-conference game NBC will televise, No. 21 Virginia meets No. 7 Notre Dame at 77,622-seat Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
“Growing up I was a huge college football fan, and Notre Dame is one of the iconic venues,” Snowden said. “So to go play there [in] a hostile environment [against] a great team, those gold helmets, Touchdown Jesus, I’m excited.”
The Fighting Irish are 2-1 after losing 23-17 at No. 3 Georgia last night.
Virginia is 0-2 all-time against Notre Dame. In 1989, the Irish defeated the Cavaliers 36-13 at the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey. In 2015, Notre Dame went ahead on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining and then added the two-point conversion to defeat UVA 34-27 at Scott Stadium.
This will be Mendenhall’s first game against Notre Dame as Virginia’s head coach. He was 0-3 against the Irish during the 11 seasons he led the program at BYU.