CHARLOTTE – South Carolina brought the crowd and the SEC bravado, but Virginia football brought the game to the 2018 Belk Bowl. The Cavaliers dominated the Gamecocks, 28-0, earning the program’s first postseason victory since the 2005 Music City Bowl.
Simply put, this was the most complete performance we have seen from Virginia in a long time. We’ll start with the Cavalier offense, which was methodical and effective, balancing run and pass while also converting consistently in key situations. Quarterback Bryce Perkins and company had possession for a staggering 42 minutes and 35 seconds out of a possible 60, converted 11-of-17 on third down, and scored touchdowns on four of its five red-zone opportunities.
Perkins, a junior, connected with senior wide receiver and Belk Bowl MVP Olamide Zaccheaus on three touchdown passes, including the game’s opening score on a 4th-and-2 with 3:30 remaining in the first quarter. The duo hooked up twice more in the second-half to put the game out of reach. Senior running back Jordan Ellis accounted for UVA’s other touchdown – a 9-yard rush that capped off a 14-play, 90-yard drive that consumed 8 minutes and 10 seconds of the clock and also put the Hoos up 14-0 just before the first-half ended.
Ellis, who said he and his teammates felt the monumental second quarter drive was the offense’s best drive of the season, finished with 106 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. He had 58 yards at halftime, a testament to a Cavalier offensive line that rose to the occasion against an athletic SEC defensive front.
Perkins was efficient in the pass game, completing 22-of-31 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns, and he was his usual elusive self in the run-game, rushing 15 times for 81 yards. The 6’3”, 215-pound signal caller from Arizona picked up several key third downs with his legs, including two on an 8-play, 39-yard third-quarter drive that would put the Hoos up 21-0.
“We just came out here with the mindset that we can’t be beat,” Perkins said. “Coach [Mendenhall] did a good job of giving us a speech before the game yesterday. He said, ‘we do the things in practice that we do in the games and don’t let the game be bigger than it is.'”
Zaccheaus turned in a special performance in his final game as a Cavalier, finishing with a UVA Bowl record 12 catches for 100 yards and the three scores. He added one carry for 10 yards.
While Virginia’s offense surged, its defense was equally as outstanding against a Gamecock offense that was averaging 32 points per game coming into today’s game. From the start, it was the UVA defense, not the South Carolina offense, making the important plays.
South Carolina reached UVA territory six times. Those drives yielded the following results: A turnover on downs (the opening drive of the game), a missed field goal (45 yards out), a turnover on downs, a turnover on downs, an interception, and an interception. The Gamecocks converted only 2-of-13 third downs and were 2-of-5 on fourth down.
One of the most important fourth down stops came near the end of the third quarter, when UVA was up 21-0. Quarterback Jake Bentley completed long passes to Moe Denson (23 yards) and Shi Smith (37 yards), giving South Carolina possession at the Virginia 8 – its first (and as it turned out only) trip to the red zone the entire game. Senior safety Juan Thornhill threw Denson for a loss of three on first down. The Hoos then forced three straight incompletions to come up with a turnover on downs.
The South Carolina fans, who outnumbered Virginia fans by a significant margin, would have erupted with a touchdown and the pressure would have been squarely on the Cavaliers heading into the fourth quarter. But it was not to be, and Virginia would shut the door on any South Carolina comeback hopes by picking off Bentley twice in the fourth quarter and adding a fourth touchdown with five minutes left in the game.
South Carolina’s offense struggled mightily. The Gamecocks, playing without All-SEC first-team receiver Deebo Samuel (preparing for the NFL Draft) and All-SEC second-team offensive lineman Zack Bailey (broken leg), rushed for only 43 yards on 2.3 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Bentley completed just 17-of-40 passes for 218 yards with two interceptions. He had completed a pass of 60 yards or more in each of South Carolina’s past six games, but that streak ended today as the Gamecocks’ longest pass play was 37 yards – significant, but none of the quick-strike scores Will Muschamp’s team had enjoyed heading in.
Thornhill finished with six tackles, one interception, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and one tackle-for-loss. Fellow senior Tim Harris had an interception and a pass breakup. Junior cornerback Bryce Hall, who revealed after the game that he would return for his senior year, had three tackles and a pass breakup.
Virginia harassed Bentley consistently, either with direct pressure (four quarterback hurries) or by jumping in his throwing lanes. Junior inside linebacker Jordan Mack led Virginia in tackles with 8. He had one sack as well. Senior linebacker Chris Peace, who was making his 38th straight and final start for the Hoos, and sophomore linebacker Matt Gahm were credited with a sack apiece.
For the Cavaliers, Saturday afternoon in Charlotte was quite the contrast to last year’s bowl effort, when UVA fell to Navy, 49-7, on a cold day in Annapolis, Maryland. However, last year’s performance and overtime losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at the end of this season fueled this Cavalier team. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall used the word “tenacious” to describe his team’s bowl preparation, which included a practice on Christmas Day.
“We just practiced urgent,” Zaccheaus said. “There was more urgency during bowl prep than there was last year. Obviously we didn’t have the best result last year. We weren’t here for vacation, and this was a business trip and we wanted to win this game.
With the win, Virginia finishes a season with eight wins for the first time since 2011. For a program that went 2-10 just two seasons ago, the future certainly seems bright heading into the offseason.
“Honestly I wish I had another year because I know next year is going to be better than this year,” Zaccheaus said.