The Virginia Cavalier football team started the 2017 season off on the right foot, comfortably defeating William & Mary by a score of 28-10 on Saturday. Below are a few keys to the game, as well as some thoughts looking forward to next week.
Keys to the Game
Winning the Turnover Battle: The Cavaliers had 0 turnovers on Saturday, ending a stretch of 42 consecutive games committing a turnover that had previously led college football (Ball St. now leads the country at 24 games). Senior QB Kurt Benkert, who struggled with interceptions at times last season, did an excellent job keeping the ball away from the Tribe defense. UVa put the ball on the turf twice, but fell on the ball each time. Both drives eventually resulted in touchdowns. William & Mary also recovered two of their own fumbles, but the Cavalier defense forced a key interception late in the 4th quarter. Senior S Quin Blanding laid a big hit on a Tribe tight end, causing the ball to pop out and be intercepted by junior OLB Chris Peace. Consistently winning the turnover battle will be important for the Cavaliers if want to continue their victorious ways.
Strong 3rd-Down Defense: A Virginia defense that surrendered 446 yards per game last year played well on Saturday, allowing only 240 yards and sealing the game with a late interception. They were especially stout on 3rd down: William & Mary was stopped on all but one of their eleven 3rd downs, including a huge 3-and-1 stop at the Virginia 23-yard line that forced the Tribe to kick a field goal. William & Mary ran the ball well overall on Saturday, totaling 168 yards on the ground, but the Cavalier defense stood strong in key moments and allowed themselves to get off the field.
Deep Receiving Corp: Benkert spread his 27 completions between nine different Virginia receivers on Saturday, including a team-leading six receptions by senior WR Doni Dowling and a spectacular 34-yard touchdown pass to senior WR Andre Levrone on 4th down. Benkert found himself with plenty of open targets throughout the afternoon as the Cavaliers consistently exploited an overmatched William & Mary secondary. And it wasn’t just the wide receivers: RBs Jordan Ellis and Daniel Hamm each received multiple targets, and reliable junior TE Evan Butts caught two balls. The Virginia passing attack looks much-improved, and it could become a necessary strength if the ground game continues to struggle.
Player of the Game: QB Kurt Benkert
Junior OLB Malcolm Cook had the best game of his career, tallying a team-leading 14 tackles to go along with a sack, and Ellis scored a touchdown on the ground and through the air. However, the importance of Benkert’s steady play on Saturday cannot be overstated. He looked comfortable in the pocket throughout the game (completing 27 of 39 passes for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns), and made only one key error (a silly intentional grounding penalty at the W&M 24-yard line that pushed the Cavaliers back 15 yards and killed a potential scoring drive). Mistake-free football is important for any team, but it’s especially important when the defense is relatively young and unproven. Benkert’s decision making was nearly flawless on Saturday, and it resulted in a Virginia victory.
Next Week: Saturday, September 9th vs. Indiana, 3:30pm EST at Scott Stadium
UVa welcomes Indiana to town this Saturday for the second game in a 3-week home stretch. The Hoosiers played #2 Ohio State tough at home in Week One, where they led for much of the first half before the Buckeyes eventually pulled away. Despite the loss, Indiana’s offense looked impressive. The Hoosiers racked up 437 total yards on offense, including 420 through the air, against a defense loaded with NFL talent. The Cavalier defense will have to continue their excellent play, particularly against the pass. Something to watch: Indiana’s three best wide receivers are all 6’4″ or taller, and Virginia’s biggest CB, senior Tim Harris, might miss the game with an arm injury. The pressure will be on young CBs Bryce Hall and Germane Crowell to play well if Harris is indeed forced to sit.