A quality defensive performance, standout play from senior quarterback Kurt Benkert, and turnover-free football was the winning formula for the Virginia football program in its 28-10 victory over in-state FCS foe William & Mary. While not perfect, UVA’s victory in the 2017 season opener was certainly appreciated following a 2-10 campaign last season that included a season-opening loss to Richmond.
“Overall, it was a solid start,” second-year Cavalier head coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his postgame press conference. “I’m happy to see the kids smile and ready to improve on all the areas we need to for the next one.”
“1-0 is better than 0-1,” Benkert said. “That’s where we wanted to start, and it didn’t matter what the game looked like for us. We just wanted to come out with a win.”
Virginia’s defense set the tone, allowing the Tribe 68 yards of offense and four first downs in the first half. William & Mary, forced to punt five times in its first five possessions, was held scoreless heading into halftime. Meanwhile, the Virginia offense put 14 first half points on the board.
Benkert and company followed up a shaky first series with a 13-play, 80-yard drive, capped off by a Jordan Ellis 1-yard touchdown run. The Cavaliers struck again in the final minutes of the first half, extending the lead to two touchdowns on a 34-yard scoring pass from Benkert to senior receiver Andre Levrone.
“It’s a huge lift,” Levrone said of the score late in the second quarter. “Football is a game of momentum, so any time you can go into the locker room with that momentum up it can continue to keep the foot on the gas and go. Then we came out of the half with a touchdown drive and that’s something that I was very proud of as well.”
Indeed, Virginia scored on its opening possession of the second half, but not before William & Mary got on the board with a 41-yard Kris Hooper field goal. The Tribe had a solid showing at the start of the third quarter, producing 3 points on an 8-play, 46-yard drive. Virginia, though, showed something as well with an answer of its own.
Virginia’s ensuing possession began with great field position thanks to a 44-yard kickoff return by sophomore Joe Reed. Reed was also on the receiving end of a key third down conversion, one of nine third downs the Hoos converted in 18 chances. The drive ended with Benkert tossing a 14-yard touchdown strike to Olamide Zaccheaus.
Each time William & Mary showed signs of life in the second half, Virginia had an answer. Thanks primarily to scramble runs by quarterback Tommy McKee, the Tribe put together a 71-yard touchdown scoring drive that cut the Hoos’ lead to 21-10 at the 6:50 mark in the fourth quarter. The momentum seemingly shifting its way, William & Mary then held the Cavalier offense to a 3-and-out when punter Lester Coleman took the field.
Coleman, a junior starting his first game for the Hoos, boomed a 63-yard punt. DeVonte Dedmon bobbled the punt and was fortunate to recover at his team’s 4. Three plays later, UVA All-American safety Quin Blanding made a jarring hit on a William & Mary receiver, deflecting a McKee pass into the arms of Cavalier linebacker Chris Peace, who returned the pick to the Tribe 25.
Virginia iced the game three minutes later with a Benkert-to-Ellis 1-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-goal. Benkert completed 27-of-39 passes to nine different receivers for 262 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Ellis, a junior running back, led the Hoos in rushing with 80 yards and added 11 yards receiving. Doni Dowling led Virginia in receiving with six catches for 76 yards.
One of the most important stats for the Cavaliers is that they didn’t surrender a turnover for the first time in 43 games. It was close — Zaccheaus somehow recovered his own fumble on Virginia’s first scoring drive — but the Hoos did not surrender the football.
“For a lot of the game we were efficient, we held onto the football and controlled the tempo,” Mendenhall said. “It wasn’t wild and elaborate, but it’s a nice place to start.”
Defensively, Blanding was credited with 12 tackles and All-American linebacker Micah Kiser had seven tackles including one sack. Junior Juan Thornhill took to his new role at safety quite well, finishing with 10 tackles (seven solo), a tackle-for-loss and a pass breakup. Perhaps stealing the day, though, was junior linebacker Malcolm Cook, who had 13 tackles (five solo) and a sack in his first start as a Cavalier.
Cook, who was expected to start last season, missed the entire 2016 season with myocarditis. He was understandably emotional entering the game.
“It felt great to play again,” Cook said. “It was exciting. Definitely before going out through the tunnel you’re trying to channel your emotions and get everything in tune with what’s really happening, I had to sit in the back in the tunnel and I was thinking about my mom and holding my tears back. It was emotional, and my head was spinning. To think that I’ve been here all this time and was starting to really play and I could’ve died last year on the field is emotional. It felt good to actually hit somebody that wasn’t wearing a V-sabre or my colors.”
Cook and the rest of the 1-0 Cavaliers play the second of three straight home games to start the season next Saturday, when the Big 10’s Indiana Hoosiers (0-1) come to Scott Stadium. Game time is 3:30 p.m.
News & Notes: The William & Mary Win
– Senior cornerback Tim Harris left the game in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be a left arm injury. No word on his status.
– Reed Kellam (ILB), Ben Knutson (OG), Lester Coleman (P), Brenton Nelson (FS), De’Vante Cross (WR), Nick Grant (SS) and Nash Griffin (Holder) made their college debuts. As did true freshmen Lamont Atkins, PK Kier (RB), Joey Blount (FS), Germaine Crowell (CB), Matt Gahm (LB), Terrell Jana (WR), Mandy Alonso (DL), Brian Delaney (K) and A.J. Mejia (K).
– Coleman, who averaged 43.8 yards per punt in his Cavalier debut, was recently put on scholarship, Mendenhall noted.
– WR Ben Hogg made his first career reception. LB Malcolm Cook had his first career sack, and LB Chris Peace made his first career interception.
– WR Olamide Zaccheaus has had at least one catch in 17 straight games.
– S Quin Blanding moved past Randy Neal into eighth on Virginia’s all-time tackle list.
– Redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer is the first freshman, redshirt or true, to start a season-opening game at left tackle since D’Brickashaw Ferguson did so as a true freshman in 2002 versus Colorado State.
– Virginia recognized former Cavalier basketball player Malcolm Brogdon during the game for his NBA Rookie of the Year honor. The applause was thunderous.