The Virginia Cavalier football team had their best performance of the Bronco Mendenhall-era on Saturday, soundly defeating the UConn Huskies by a score of 38-18. UVa got excellent play from both sides of the ball in building up a 24-0 halftime lead, and the Huskies were unable to get anything going until it was too late. Here are the keys to the win, as well as a look forward to this Friday night’s primetime matchup against Boise State.
Keys to the Game:
The Ground Game Comes Alive: Finally, the Cavaliers were able to run the football. After two weeks of futile efforts, UVa moved the ball with ease against a soft UConn run defense on Saturday. Junior RB Jordan Ellis led the way with 95 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and the Cavaliers averaged over 5.5 yards per carry as a team. The offense found themselves in manageable down-and-distance situations throughout the afternoon, allowing them to string together long drives: The opening drive of the game went 88 yards in 18 plays, the longest scoring drive in Virginia football history, and took almost 10 minutes off the game clock.
Two other scoring drives each lasted nearly five minutes, and the Cavaliers outpaced the Huskies in time-of-possession by a healthy six minutes. Although it took some time, Virginia seems to have finally found ways to successfully open up holes for their running backs and take some pressure off of senior QB Kurt Benkert. The UConn defense was forced to load the box, which in turn allowed Benkert more freedom to work in the passing game. This ability to create running room must continue next week against a stout Boise State run defense ranked 26th in the country.
Big Defensive Plays: On paper, the Huskies had a good day offensively, totaling 426 yards of total offense behind a big performance from senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs. But don’t be fooled by the stat sheet – the Virginia defense played an excellent game. Timely stops on third and fourth down were combined with two key turnovers to hold UConn scoreless for 34 minutes while Benkert & Co. built up an insurmountable lead. UConn didn’t score until there were 50 seconds left in the third quarter, and by that point the game was completely out of hand.
The Cavaliers entered the game allowing opponents to convert on just 19% of third downs, and the excellence continued against UConn: the Huskies were forced to turn the ball over on downs four different times, despite being in UVa territory each time. Furthermore, both UConn turnovers – a fumble forced by sophomore CB Bryce Hall and recovered by senior LB Micah Kiser and an interception by redshirt freshman DB Brenton Nelson – came with the Huskies in the red zone. The Cavaliers weren’t quite as sharp this week from a total defense perspective, giving up a number of yards in the middle of the field and late in the game. However, they locked down in crucial moments and held the Huskie offense in check.
Downfield Passing: Benkert was spinning the ball in a big way on Saturday, taking advantage of ample time in the pocket to complete 75% of his passes for a school-record 445 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he found success time and time again throwing deep down the field. He had 10 completions of at least 15 yards, highlighted by a beautiful 42-yard touchdown pass to senior WR Doni Dowling as Benkert took a hit from a blitzing Huskie linebacker. His 30 completions averaged over 15 yards each, aided by senior WR Andre Levrone’s 73-yard catch and run for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t just a big day for Benkert. The Cavaliers had three different wide receivers – Dowling, Levrone, and junior Olamide Zaccheaus – with more than 120 yards receiving on Saturday, the first time such occasion in the program’s history. It was also the first game multiple Virginia receivers had 100-yard receiving days since 2013. Sophomore WR Warren Craft extended his consecutive streak of games with a catch to seven, while sophomore RB Chris Sharp and redshirt freshman WR De’Vante Cross both tallied their first career receptions. The entire receiving corps found space in UConn’s secondary throughout the afternoon, and Benkert delivered dimes all game.
Saturday’s game was an incredible day for the offense, as the team tallied 626 total yards and their highest point total since Week Four of 2016. Both the running and passing attacks were humming, and that’s largely thanks to an offensive line that opened up running lanes and gave Benkert plenty of time in the pocket to make plays. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae have tried a number of different combinations along the O-Line, and they seem to have finally found an effective unit. Reinkensmeyer, a redshirt freshman, has especially stood out this year, starting Week One at left tackle before moving to center this week. That allowed Fieler to slide over to right guard, and the result was a line of scrimmage dominated by the Cavaliers. The offense took a major step forward in Week Three, and the big men up front helped lead the way.
Next Week: Friday, Sept 22 vs. Boise St, 8:00PM at Albertsons Stadium on ESPN 2
Virginia will make their first road trip of the season this week, heading west to Boise, Idaho to play the Boise State Broncos on the famous blue turf of Albertsons Stadium. The Cavaliers faced Boise State in 2015, suffering a 56-14 defeat at Scott Stadium on a Friday night that saw the Hoos turn the ball over five times in a torrential downpour. Boise St. is 2-1 on the year, with their only defeat coming at the hands of #18 Washington St. in overtime by a score of 47-44. Offense has been a struggle for the Broncos: they average only 340 yards per game, which is 109th in the nation. They’re led by their ground game, which averages 146 yards per game and is headed by senior dual-threat QB Montell Cozart. But their defense is the real strength, as they’ve allowed opponents only 316 yards per game and have been especially stingy against the run. The Cavaliers will need last week’s success running the ball to carry over this week, but it may prove difficult against what will easily be the best run defense they’ve seen all year .
Something to watch: UVa has struggled with mobile quarterbacks this year. All three Cavalier opponents thus far have gotten meaningful yardage on the ground from their QBs, with Indiana in particular finding success in Week Two once they brought a more mobile QB into the game. Virginia will have to play disciplined defense on Friday, especially when bringing linebackers on the blitz. Blitzing linebackers usually means most, if not all, of the secondary is playing man-to-man coverage down the field; as such, the quarterback has plenty of open room to run if the blitzes don’t hit home.
It’s been a promising start to the year for UVa, and this week provides an opportunity to continue that progress and enter conference play with only one loss. Boise State on the blue turf is a difficult matchup for any opponent; however, if Virginia plays disciplined defense and opens running lanes they will have a fighting chance. A victory on Friday night in front of a national audience would be a huge morale boost for a team and fan base that has struggled mightily the last five years. Even better, it’d be an important step towards bowl eligibility.