Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall mentioned earlier this week that an 0-3 start was uncharted territory for a him as a head coach. He found his way back to very familiar territory Saturday: winning.
The Cavaliers defeated Central Michigan, 49-35, at Scott Stadium to secure the eagerly awaited first win in the Bronco Mendenhall Era at UVA. It represented the 100th win of Mendenhall’s career, though. He described the scene in the locker room as one he wouldn’t forget.
“It was sheer joy,” Mendenhall said. “They were waiting for me to come in like it was a big deal to them to celebrate for me as well and I couldn’t wait to celebrate for them. That’s gratifying when it meant a lot for them to make me feel special and visa versa. It’s one of those things I won’t forget, ever.”
Junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, a player who Mendenhall has heaped large praise upon, enjoyed a record-setting day and came through when it mattered most to lead the Cavaliers to victory. The East Carolina graduate transfer completed 27 of 43 passes for 421 yards with 5 touchdowns and 1 interception. The 421 yards set a new single game Virginia record, breaking the 417 yards from Marc Verica against Duke in 2010.
Benkert started to key surges with touchdown passes to receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. He hit the sophomore in the back of end zone with a 15-yard touchdown strike to open the game’s scoring. That was the first of four consecutive touchdown scoring drives Virginia put together in the first half as the team sprinted to a 28-0 lead. Senior running backs Albert Reid and Taquan Mizzell, who combined for 126 yards rushing and 2 rushing touchdowns on the day, scored during this span as well. So did senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson, whose 13-yard touchdown catch capped off a 99-yard drive, the longest scoring drive in school history.
While Virginia dominated the first quarter-and-a-half, however, an experienced and previously unbeaten Central Michigan team made sure the Cavaliers’ first win of the season was earned, not given. A 66-yard touchdown drive and 85-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Cooper Rush to wide receiver Corey Willis got the Chippewas to within 2 touchdowns at halftime.
The game got even tighter for the Hoos with 7:34 remaining in the third quarter, when cornerback Amari Coleman broke on a Benkert receiver screen pass and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. Early in the fourth, Rush once again connected with Willis, this time for a 14-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 28.
In the season opening loss to Richmond, Mendenhall was surprised to see the downtrodden body language some of his players exhibited. That wasn’t exactly the case this time around. But it looked familiar to both Mendenhall and long-time Cavalier fans.
“There wasn’t anything that could be said at that time,” Mendenhall said, referring to the mood of the team when the game was tied and CMU had the momentum. “It had to be action. It wasn’t the Richmond thing but it was a relative, the second cousin maybe – one that you visit occasionally but don’t want to be there often. We’re not immune from that being past history and I’m not sure the stadium was. It seemed like there was this cultural, ‘we know what this feels like’ and I felt that.”
Virginia responded to turn ‘here we go again’ into ‘not this time’ in the fourth quarter.
Central Michigan had 2nd-and-6 on the UVA 36-yard line when the defense, which began the game by forcing five straight punts, made two huge plays. The Hoos stuffed running back Jahray Hayes for a 5-yard loss and forced an incompletion to make CMU punt.
Moments later, Benkert and Zaccheaus connected again to spark another surge. Facing 2nd-and-6 from the UVA 18, Benkert came through with a game-changing play. The 6’3”, 225-pound signal caller dropped back to pass, scrambled to his left to avoid pressure, and, against the wishes of many in Scott Stadium calling for him to run, heaved a pass down the Central Michigan sideline. Zaccheaus caught it in stride, broke a tackle, and went in for the 82-yard score.
“We had to worry about first downs first, trying to set ourselves up for good third-down situations, and we didn’t do a great job of that to start the second half,” Benkert said. “They just gave us a look that really worked on the play, and we just took a shot.”
“It was there earlier in the game, and we just went back to it,” Zaccheaus said. “I told Coach [Robert] Anae that it was a play that was there. They played it similarly earlier in the game.”
Benkert threw another pair of touchdown passes in the quarter. His 5 touchdowns are the most by a Virginia quarterback since Matt Schaub against Akron in 2002 and one shy of Dan Ellis’ school record. Meanwhile, the Virginia defense stiffened, and suddenly, UVA had built a 49-28 lead with just four minutes remaining.
Mendenhall said he is thankful for his players and happy to be able to share the winning feeling with them.
“I appreciate the trust that they have placed in me, embracing the new approach, and I appreciate the resiliency and the men they are becoming,” Mendenhall said. “This is not easy and they faced a lot of challenges today, ups and downs and in betweens and I think there will be more of those until we gain maturity and execution and consistency. I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of how they hung in there together.”