The Virginia football offense totaled 80 points in back-to-back blowout wins over U-Conn and Boise State on September 16 and September 22. In the four games since and highlighted by blowout losses each of the past two weeks, the Cavalier offense has hardly resembled the group that was so explosive back in September.
In its past four outings against Duke, UNC, Boston College and Pittsburgh, the Virginia offense is responsible for only 65 points. Only 24 of those points have come in the first half, something the Hoos overcame in wins over the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, thanks to a stout defensive effort. That was not the case the past two weeks, however, as UVA was crushed by the Eagles at home before losing on the road at Pitt.
Senior Kurt Benkert, who, against Connecticut, broke his own school record for passing yards in a single game before exploiting Boise State to the tune of 273 yards passing and three scores, and his teammates sought answers following last Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh. Eight times Virginia crossed into Pitt territory. Only twice did the Cavaliers produce points.
“As players, I feel like we have to take more ownership,” Benkert told WINA’s Jay James in postgame comments.
Sitting in front of reporters at Virginia football’s weekly Monday press conference on October 30, Benkert did not point fingers at his teammates. Instead, he did what you would expect out of a team captain and accepted responsibility for his inconsistent play the past four weeks. Slow starts have plagued the 6’3” senior each of the past two weeks in particular, as he completed 6-of-13 passes for 70 yards with an interception in Virginia’s first six possessions against Pittsburgh and went 4-of-14 for just 22 yards and a pick in UVA’s first five possessions against Boston College.
With the Cavalier defense not playing up to the standard it set earlier in the season, slow starts on offense doomed Virginia’s chances against the Eagles and Panthers. BC grabbed a 24-0 lead before UVA got on the board, while Pitt surged to a 21-0 lead before a Virginia touchdown cut the lead to 14 at halftime. Slow second half starts left the Cavaliers in an even bigger hole in both contests.
“As soon as I can get into a rhythm and get into the flow of the game, I feel like I’m really good,” Benkert said. “Some games take longer than others. I just need to find a way to start faster, start more aggressive, and not just let the game come to me.”
“If I come out faster, come out swinging, I think everybody around me responds quicker,” Benkert said. “Going forward that needs to be the mindset.”
News came out this week that Benkert is dealing with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. He dealt with an injury to the same shoulder last season, when he mixed flashes of brilliance with inconsistency. He dismissed the injury as having a major impact on his play, adding that the injury feels a lot better than it did several weeks ago.
Injuries are part of football, Benkert said on Monday. Execution is where his focus is.
“[Deep passes] were there (against Pittsburgh),” said Benkert. “I just didn’t do a good enough job of sitting in the pocket and letting it develop. I tried anticipating, which I’ve done a little bit too much of the past three weeks. Trying to anticipate where [the wide receivers] are going to be and not sitting in there long enough and letting it really develop. That comes with me sitting in the pocket, being ready to sit there, take a hit, and being ready to throw it at the same time instead of trying to get rid of the ball just to get rid of it. That’s going to be a really big focus of mine going forward, just sitting in there as long as possible at the last second so I know exactly where he’s going to be. I haven’t been giving it enough time lately.”
The Cavalier offensive line has allowed 10 sacks over the course of the past three games. Dealing with an injury and suspect pass protection may be reasons why Benkert has seemed uncomfortable at times in the pocket the past month. Coach Bronco Mendenhall saw improvement against Pittsburgh, though, and hopes the latter trend will continue against Georgia Tech.
“I think his comfort level is his — it probably was higher than the level of protection he got as the game went on,” Mendenhall said of Benkert’s protection during the Pitt game. “So I was proud of him for that. The week before, I couldn’t say that. This one, he was poised and he was standing in. A lot of times at the end, as the game went on, the pocket wasn’t stand-inable.”
Left tackle Jack English is out for the Georgia Tech game with a knee injury, so it looks like redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer, who has been the starting center since the U-Conn game, will move out to left tackle. Guard Jake Fieler will move to center, where he started the first three games of 2017.
Benkert didn’t play against the Yellow Jackets last season, serving instead as Matt Johns’ backup. He knows his offense may have limited possessions given Georgia Tech’s triple-option offensive attack, so the Hoos better be sharp, able to sustain drives, and most importantly put up points against the nation’s 10th-ranked defense on 3rd down and 26th-ranked defense overall.
“What we do know as a team is we have to play complementary football,” said Mendenhall, whose offense has converted only 37.3% of its 3rd downs the past four games. “In six of our eight games, the defensive yield in terms of points, I’m comfortable enough. I’m not talking about with interceptions or punt returns. It’s probably close enough to have one more win. Offensively, we’re probably one or two games off of that.
“When Kurt is capable and on and confident, man, I really like him. Like any player, when he’s off, the visibility of that spot is apparent to everybody.”
Still 5-3 on the season, Benkert and company are ready to forget the past two games and capitalize on the position they are in right now.
“We’re happy that we took advantage of the early part of the schedule, and I think we dropped the ball the past two weeks,” Benkert said. “I think that’s plain for everybody to see. We’re happy with the success we had early, but that means nothing right now. We need to win football games now and the next four games that we have are all winnable. Every game in this conference is winnable. Anybody can beat anybody every single week, so we’re excited to see where we can take this.”