The Virginia football team knew that its Belk Bowl showdown with South Carolina offered a significant opportunity for program-building momentum. The Cavaliers didn’t waste that chance.
In fact, the best part of UVA’s 28-0 win against USC on Saturday was just how convincing it was. The Hoos didn’t eke or squeak their way to the winner’s circle. There wasn’t a couple of bad bounces that doomed the Gamecocks. It wasn’t a case of South Carolina being uninterested in winning, though its execution on both sides of the ball swung wildly on an inconsistent afternoon.
No, the Cavaliers controlled essentially every piece of this bowl matchup from start to finish. This was no fluke.
“We definitely wanted to push the metal and keep our foot on their throats and keep it up, keep it up, keep it up, and wear them down, wear them down,” Perkins said. “You could see during drives hands on their hips, you could see them getting tired and more lethargic so that’s what we urged.”
That mindset was established long before Saturday’s game. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said it first started to take shape after last season’s frustrating finale against Navy, a 49-7 loss in the Military Bowl, and extended all the way through the final practice in Charlottesville ahead of the Belk Bowl a year later. He said that you can see indicators in preparation that your team is ready for a postseason appearance.
In that sense, Mendenhall liked what he saw from his team in the practices before the game with South Carolina.
“One of the best indicators was when I announced that we’d be practicing on Christmas before we then got on buses to come here,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That was a test. They looked right back at me with this nod [of understanding] and then I explained the best gift I could give them was to work them harder than their opponent and the memories will last longer and they embraced that.”
Those memories will be of a impressive performance.
For the first time in UVA bowl history, the team shut out the opponent. It goes beyond that, though. It marked the first time an SEC team was shut out in a bowl game by a non-conference opponent since 1975 and was just the sixth bowl shutout in ACC history. South Carolina hadn’t ended a game with a goose egg on the scoreboard since 2006. UVA hadn’t posted a shutout since 2013.
The stats further illustrate just how well the Cavaliers played. They had more first downs (28-12), dominated the rushing game (205-33) and won the passing battle (3 TDs/0 INTs vs. 0 TDs/2 INTs). The Hoos came out on top in the turnover category (1-2), penalties (3-30 vs. 4-35), time of possession (42:35 to 17:25!), third down conversions (11 of 17 vs. 2 of 13), and sacks (3-2).
UVA had a 100-yard receiver in Olamide Zaccheaus, who hauled in a legend-status confirming three touchdown catches, and a 100-yard rusher in Jordan Ellis, who also scored for the team. Both players moved past the 1,000-yard mark in their respective categories for the season as a result.
Simply put, it was a thorough effort across the board as the Hoos executed their game plan almost as well as possible. For a game that appeared to be a potential match between 7-5 equals, the lopsided result was even more jarring, particularly after Virginia’s final two losses came in overtime by three points. A close game this was not.
“The games we were playing against quality teams were coming down to the end so we trained really hard for games coming down to the end,” Mendenhall said. “I would rather do that and have it not be that than the other so I’m glad it wasn’t a nailbiter, I’m glad it wasn’t down to the end, I’m gratified because of the progress we’ve made. But man that training we put in will be helpful in the future.”
Of course, this year’s final outing provided a stark contrast to last year’s bowl game. In that one, Navy led 28-7 at the half and cruised to the 49-7 win. After scoring on the opening kickoff, Virginia mustered just 175 yards of total offense with no points produced. That extended UVA’s season-ending loss streak to 12 years as the 2005 Music City Bowl marked the last time the Hoos headed to the offseason on a winning note.
That changed with Saturday’s dissection of South Carolina.
“A bowl victory is significant,” Mendenhall said. “When you put it in contrast to a year ago, it can’t be more striking in this setting. This one game setting, that’s a giant step forward.”