Economists sometimes use a term called opportunity cost. For the Virginia football team Saturday, however, a different phrase may have been more appropriate. Opportunity lost.
The Cavaliers squandered good field position in the first half, didn’t get defensive momentum builders after scores, and missed the opportunity to start 2-0 for the first time since 2012 as a result. Indiana made sure of that with three touchdowns of more than 25 yards en route to a 34-17 win at Scott Stadium.
“I thought Indiana was more opportunistic in the short fields they had in relation to the short fields we had,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “In the beginning of the game they were struggling to get across the 50. We didn’t have as many points come out of that as necessary. Then there were moments of the game when it shifted and we were defending short fields and they capitalized at a higher level.”
That theme played out in the final 20 minutes before intermission. Late in the first quarter, Virginia took over possession at its own 40-yard line but that drive stalled out at the Indiana 11 when a fake field goal failed to get enough yardage. The Hoos quickly got the ball back early in the second quarter thanks to a Juan Thornhill interception, but after taking over at the IU 44-yard line they didn’t score.
The hosts did use that drive to pin Indiana at its own 2-yard line, but after a three-and-out set the offense up at the IU 24, the Cavaliers managed only three points. On that drive, Kurt Benkert missed two opportunities to connect with Warren Craft in the end zone with eight minutes to go before halftime. Up until that moment, however, the Hoos had controlled much of the game and the field position battle while keeping the Hoosiers’ up-tempo offense out of rhythm.
Still, Virginia only led 3-0 and things shifted quickly.
Over its next three possessions, Indiana grabbed good field position and took advantage of it. Following the Hoos’ field goal, the Hoosiers took over at their own 41-yard line after a 31-yard return and a five-yard penalty against Virginia. The visitors converted a 4th-and-1 play to the keep the drive alive and then scored on a 29-yard run-and-catch touchdown from receiver Simmie Cobbs with the Cavaliers missing tackles along the way. Just like that, IU had the lead.
After the Hoos went three-and-out on offense, Indiana’s next possession started at the UVA 30-yard line after J’Shun Harris returned the punt 43 yards (foreshadowing alert). Backup quarterback Peyton Ramsey made sure his team took advantage of the big special teams play with back-to-back runs of eight and 26 yards to end the drive with a touchdown and a 14-3 lead. After another three-and-out, Cavalier punter Lester Coleman misfired on his kick and it traveled only 19 yards to leave the Hoosiers at the UVA 45-yard line to start the next drive. Griffin Oakes ended the half with a 51-yard field goal to capitalize on that one.
Three drives each with good field position in those 20 minutes, but Indiana led 17-3. Virginia never caught up.
“We didn’t seize our opportunities or take advantage of the field position,” Cavalier junior Olamide Zaccheaus said. “I’m not sure how many times we had the ball on the plus 40, but we scored three points and we had the field position advantage, and when we’re in the red zone we have to score touchdowns. There was one play where I could have scored but I had a defender on my ankle and that’s a four-point tackle and we just can’t have things like that.”
Zaccheaus is referencing a catch on the field goal drive where he got tackled at the five-yard line. That’s the same drive where Benkert missed Craft twice in the end zone when the receiver had broken open. Both of those players had good statistical days in a way. Zaccheaus tallied a career-high 12 catches for 72 yards, while Benkert completed 39 of 66 passes for 259 yards with a touchdown. Those completion and attempts set new career bests for Benkert.
Still, those numbers don’t average out very well. Zaccheaus’ 12 catches averaged 6.0 yards, while Benkert’s 39 completions averaged 6.6. The longest connection of the day came on a 20-yarder to Zaccheaus. Tight end Evan Butts maybe had the best day with six catches for 54 yards, an average of 9.0 yards per catch.
The lack of explosive plays combined with only 55 yards rushing made it hard for the Hoos to move the ball consistently or score points.
“It was a slow start, that was evident. It was also a little bit streaky,” Mendenhall said. “There were patches where it looked rhythmic, efficient and poised but it was certainly a slow and inconsistent start. There was some momentum at different stretches, but really just not consistent enough. The run game is still something we are working on. Our efficiency in running the football is shifting pressure to the throw game. Then there was a shift when we were behind, but still within reach. There was nothing to me that caused panic until the punt return. I was anxious, optimistic and ready to keep playing football in terms of being within striking distance.”
Indeed, the Cavaliers remained in touch on the scoreboard thanks to a touchdown drive to open the second half and a penalty-aided touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. Jordan Ellis capped the first one with a 12-yard run that made it 17-10, while Joe Reed finished off the second one with a seven-yard swing pass that made it 27-17. The Hoos actually committed two turnovers on the Reed touchdown drive, but Indiana got flagged for roughing the passer and targeting on two separate plays, one where Benkert threw an interception and one where Benkert fumbled and the Hoosiers returned it for a touchdown.
After both touchdowns, however, the defense didn’t get the shutdown moment that the comeback hopes needed. After Ellis’ touchdown, IU drove for a field goal to stretch the lead back to two scores. After the Reed touchdown, the Hoosiers ate up 5:42 of fourth quarter game clock with a 15-play drive that eventually ended on downs at the UVA 3-yard line. So while the defense prevented a score, it didn’t do enough in terms of the clock or field position.
That set up the game-ending punt return foreshadowed earlier. UVA punted out of its own end zone after that long drive and Harris bettered his earlier return by one yard. This time, however, 44 yards was enough to take it all the way to the house for a touchdown that provided the final margin of victory.
“When Indiana had their chances, they executed cleaner than we did,” Mendenhall said. “We had some opportunities slip away and they capitalized on more of theirs. And they created some more, with the punt return in particular.”