Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert slipped into the huddle and didn’t have much to say. Everyone already knew the stakes.
With 3:10 remaining in a topsy-turvy game of momentum, Georgia Tech led 36-33. A steady rain had returned. A field goal could tie, but 64 yards away a touchdown could win. Bowl eligibility still hanging in the balance. The sting of a 2-10 season that ended with a seven-game tailspin still relevant with a similar skid still brewing.
And yet the quarterback that openly discussed trying to press so much under the stressful chase for win No. 6 the past two weeks walked into the huddle and calmly went to work.
”We all looked at each other in the huddle and we knew,” UVA offensive tackle Brandon Pertile said. ”We knew, hey, it’s got to happen. Do or die. This is what we do all this hard work for.”
Coincidentally that matched the message from the entire week prior to this drive with so much on the line against Georgia Tech. Sensing that the pressure of bowl eligibility and turning the program around had become “pervasive” for his team, Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall addressed the issue. Daily. Including the night before in the team locker room after the walk-through on the field.
Mendenhall didn’t try to disguise it or dress it up as something different. It was more of a hey, there’s an elephant in here and we can all see it. Let’s deal with it by focusing on what we need to do on the field. Make the next play, do it with passion, and try not to be outcome driven. In other words, get back to the program’s core.
That message resonated, perhaps more so with the starting quarterback than anyone else. Senior running back Daniel Hamm said Benkert said before the game that he didn’t feel the same pressure as the previous two weeks. Senior receiver Andre Levrone exchanged encouragement with Benkert early Saturday as well.
”Me and Kurt and talked previously [Saturday] just about being unfazed,” Levrone said. ”That was the word we kept talking about. Play with confidence, this, that, and the third but most importantly just be unfazed. Mistake? Oh well, next play mentality. Great play? Oh well, next play mentality. It doesn’t matter. We’re unfazed.”
All of that prologue squeezed into the huddle late Saturday at Scott Stadium. Pouring rain, 3:10 to go, a possible victory slipping away again, game – and season? – on the line, Benkert stepped into the huddle with a little Friday Night Lights vibe in tow.
”Just look me in my eyes, know that I’m going to ride with you guys and you guys are going to ride with me. We’re going to make it happen,” Benkert said.
A five-yard run and four complete passes later, Benkert had led his team on a lead-taking touchdown drive that culminated with a 27-yard touchdown audible with Levrone. The five plays in sequence: a 19-yard throw over a defender to Olamide Zaccheaus, a read option keeper for five yards, a five-yard swing pass to Jordan Ellis, an eight-yard sit-down route between defenders to Doni Dowling, and the 27-yard winner to Levrone. Every pass was confident and decisive.
Plus, Benkert had the trust from the coaches and the confidence in himself to check into the route too. Out of the huddle, Levrone’s assignment was a quick out on 2nd-and-2. The formation looked like the bread-and-butter lead run play with split backs. When Benkert saw Georgia Tech’s safeties tight with the seams and closer to the line, he sent Levrone to the pylons on the fade.
Levrone indicated that the game winner came through a window with perfect touch. The only person that had a shot at it was him. When he secured that touchdown catch and the defense held on for the win, the rain had not stopped but the fog around the Virginia football team at least had started to clear.
Thanks in large part to Benkert, the transfer quarterback whose journey to that moment included reconstructive knee surgery at East Carolina, playing through a significant shoulder injury in his first Cavalier season, and a fairly rocky 10 quarters or so of quarterback play leading up to it.
With bowl hopes on the line against Boston College and Pittsburgh, he threw for 126 and 212 yards respectively with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He got pulled against BC and couldn’t produce the comeback against Pitt. Then against Georgia Tech, hampered by dropped passes from the receivers, he completed 7 of 19 attempts for 78 yards in the first half before throwing a pick-6 interception on the first attempt of the second half.
In a span of 35 seconds, a one-point game had buckled with an explosive touchdown run against the defense and a critical mistake from the offense. Would the building pressure lead to a collapse?
During the 2016 tailspin to end the year, Benkert faced the same scenario twice. He followed a pick-6 against Pittsburgh with 93 yards on 7-20 passing with no touchdowns in a loss. He threw a pick-6 against Wake Forest that became the decisive score with 16 yards on 2-3 passing with no touchdowns in a loss. In that game, the next series featured three run plays as Benkert didn’t get a pass off on 3rd-and-10.
This time around, things were different. Virginia came out after the pick-6 against Georgia Tech and responded with 15 points. The Hoos were in hurry-up mode on offense with no huddle and that helped settle Benkert in with less time to think and more time to act. The first three plays of the ensuing series were all pass calls and he completed two of them for 13 yards. Three more pass plays produced three completions and 47 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown to Levrone.
“It’s crazy. Literally for it to look like that and then look like that,” Mendenhall said. “I think the rain and the weather had something to do with it, but I won’t remember anything other than the end to be honest. And I’m not sure anyone should. Those kind of comebacks, they don’t happen very often. And I don’t get to be part of things like that and so there’s a lot we can improve, but we also made enough plays to win the game.”
Indeed, the turnaround was stark. By the end of the day, Benkert had completed 14 of his final 23 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns. That included the immediate response touchdown to Levrone, a bucket-dropping 28-yarder to Dowling, and then the game-winner on the final drive where he went 4-4 passing.
After the defense made that touchdown strike to Levrone hold up, the Hoos came back on the field one last time for the victory formation. This time Benkert entered the huddle with something to share.
”I’ll tell you what, we got in there to take a knee and Kurt looked at all of us up front and he says ‘We’re going to remember this until the day we die,’” Pertile said. ”Damn right.”