Quick Thoughts From Virginia’s Win Vs. William & Mary

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Virginia is 2-0.
Zane Zandier posted 9 tackles in each of Virginia’s first two games. ~ Kris Wright

The Virginia football team wasted little time in a sprint to the winner’s circle Friday night. The Hoos jumped all over William & Mary with 21 first quarter points and turned the home opener into a rout well ahead of halftime. By the time the dust settled, UVA had secured a convincing, if not entirely clean, 52-17 win.

The Cavaliers got some style points in the win too. They scored in all three phases of the game thanks to Nick Grant and Joe Reed with two different blocking convoys. That’s the first time since 2002 that Virginia scored a touchdown in all three phases.

Grant flew down the home sidelines toward the bowl after in the first quarter and ended up with an 85-yard touchdown return on his first career interception. That’s the third-longest return in UVA history. Reed, meanwhile, put special teams in the scorebook too when he went coast to coast along those same sidelines toward the hill for a 100-yard kickoff return. That tied the program record and was the first 100-yard return since Marquis Weeks in 2004.

The Hoos are 2-0 for the first time under Bronco Mendenhall with the victory. Here are 10 quick thoughts about Friday night’s romp.

1. Popping pads.

Earlier in his tenure after an offseason practice session, Mendenhall told reporters that while improvements were happening on the field, it still didn’t sound right. He thought the Hoos needed to be more physical. The result of that would lead to the sounds of football pads popping through the air.

On Friday night, it was clear at field level that Mendenhall is starting to get what he wants. The UVA defense filled the field with pop after pop after pop against William & Mary. On one play, it wasn’t even the actual tackle. Jordan Mack came around the end and challenged a blocker with force. He’s not alone. Many Cavaliers have delivered physical hits in the first two weeks.

The biggest noise-maker might be Zane Zandier. When he shows up to meet the ball on the ground, it’s shaking like a sub-woofer. There were numerous plays Friday night where he created an audible bang at the point of attack. So far, Zandier’s been around the ball a lot too – he’s led the team in tackles for both game. He has a pair of 9’s with the same number of stops in both games.

As for the pops … Zandier said: “Especially with Jordan playing inside backer, we just take pride in how hard we’re hitting and how hard we’re smashing into teams. It sounds different when helmets and shoulder pads are popping. It’s a lot of fun out there. I would agree that it sounded right tonight.”

2. Better now or never.

UVA scored the program’s most points since a 51-3 demolition of Temple in 2005. The Hoos had a 35-3 lead at halftime, which tied for the ninth most points in the first half for the program.

As you might expect, starting quarterback Bryce Perkins was in the center of a lot of that. He posted 192 passing yards with 2 touchdowns and added 68 rushing yards with a touchdown too. He wasn’t sacked at all. That pushed his career rushing total past 1,000 yards and made him the fastest Cavalier to reach 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in his career. He needed just 15 games to get there. Shawn Moore did it in 31 games. Perkins has multiple touchdown passes in 14 of 15 games with the Hoos.

Still, Friday night’s performance didn’t qualify as pristine. Perkins finished the night 16-of-26 passing with 2 interceptions too. Both came on called rollout plays where he decided to throw back against his movement toward the middle of the field. Those usually are no-no throws for quarterbacks and something that Perkins had not done in a long time, dating back to early last season. As someone who has called for designed rollout plays with a run-pass choice for Perkins to survey receivers at different levels or keep it for a carry, maybe that’s why those plays aren’t on the menu as often.

Of course, throwing interceptions is something Perkins had not done in a long time in general. He had gone 145 passes without an interception before Friday’s miscues. He threw 7 interceptions in the first six games last season, but had thrown just 2 over the next eight games through the Belk Bowl and the opener at Pittsburgh. Mendenhall said after the game that if Perkins was going to make those types of mistakes, doing it in a 52-17 romp is a better setting than in a tight conference game down the road.

So far at UVA, Perkins has been a strong bounce-back player so I wouldn’t expect those interceptions to linger in his mind.

Virginia is 2-0.
Terrell Chatman makes a falling catch at the goal line. ~ Kris Wright

3. Highly recommended.

Graduate transfer Terrell Chatman had a smile on his face with reporters after the game. And why not? The Arizona State transfer had just scored the first touchdown of his Virginia career as part of a 3-catch, 44-yard night. He only had one other touchdown in his career before breaking open over the middle in the second quarter.

That pass came from Perkins, his long-time roommate and recruiting class partner all the way back at ASU. Chatman took his post route hard across the field and kept the defender on his back once he won position. Perkins put the ball at the spot for the touchdown.

“I don’t think it was the last look,” Chatman said. “He just kind of waited for me to get in the clear and then he dropped it in there.”

Chatman nearly doubled up later in the game on another pass across the middle. That time, back-up quarterback Brennan Armstrong found him with inside position near the end zone. Chatman was called down at the one-yard line even though he fell into the end zone.

Still, Chatman’s solid performance Friday did not win over Mendenhall. It didn’t need to. Chatman had earned his way into the receiving conversation back during preseason practice. But the comfort level goes back further. The Virginia coach said that both Perkins and UVA strength coach Shawn Griswold had given a strong endorsement for Chatman based on their time with him at Arizona State. So did ASU Defensive Coordinator Danny Gonzales, who worked with Mendenhall at New Mexico at the start of his coaching career.

4. Cross fit.

Early in his Virginia career, De’Vante Cross spent time moonlighting at various positions. He played quarterback as a back-up option behind Kurt Benkert. He played receiver to get his athletic skills on the field. Then, he changed sides and started playing defense, which included some time at corner. Finally, he moved to safety.

It’s a fit.

When he first picked up safety reps later last year, including a start in the Liberty game, Cross showed some flashes but the consistency or knowledge simply wasn’t there yet. He hadn’t been through offseason practices with countless reps to build the fluidity and the reads needed to be a potential force in the back of the defense. Through two games this season, however, Cross looks like a complete natural at safety. He had 5 tackles with 1 tackle for loss against William & Mary on the heels of 3 tackles and a pass break-up at Pitt. It’s beyond the stats. He flows well through space, has seemed decisive on reads, and is making plays both going toward and going away from the line of scrimmage.

5. Reed ‘em and weep.

As mentioned in the open, Reed was at it again on special teams. Early in the second quarter, the Tribe had finally picked up a little good fortune when Chuck Davis fumbled a punt to give the visitors good field position. While the offense lost 10 yards, W&M did get on the scoreboard for the first time to make it 28-3. The good feelings were short lived.

On the next kickoff, William & Mary sent a long kick down the left side where Joe Reed fielded it approximately three to four yards inside the end zone. He decided to bring it out, which was only mildly surprising considering his ability on returns and the fact that the team put an emphasis on that phase this week. The surprising part was that he started to run horizontal across the field around the 8-yard line … and football fans have seen how that can go wrong plenty of times I’m sure. That’s often a recipe for a tackle inside the 10 and bad field position.

Not this time.

Reed ran past the stumbling tackle attempt of Tyler Crist, who UVA’s Reed Kellam missed and likely avoided a potential blocking penalty as a result. Grant Misch got a shoulder block on the next defender with an angle and that set up the chance for the sideline to be sealed. Jamari Peacock and Tyler Cowley took care of that. Jairus Satiu and Hayden Mitchell hustled across the field to get extra blocks at the final level and Reed did the rest.

Reed owns the Cavalier career record for kick returns for touchdowns with four. He’s the only player in program history to return one for a score in three different seasons. To summarize, that means he’s the school record holder for number, length, and longevity. He’s good.

“Joe is the best kick returner that I’ve had a chance to coach,” Mendenhall said. “He’s got amazing speed and just has a knack and great vision and is very dynamic. I was surprised that the ball was kicked to him. I was hopeful it would be. We thought William & Mary was very aggressive on their kick [coverage] and we were impressed with that from week one and thought they had strong culture and were really aggressive. Our intent was then to run around them and come to the field [side on the return]. It was executed well and blocked well.”

In other words, skill met what Reed called preparation. UVA found a potential vulnerability in the kick coverage and exploited it. That’s why he came all the way across the field to start that return. It paid off. Watch it here:

6. Quiet 6.

I remember spotting Jowon Briggs through the camera lens once or twice during the game, but I didn’t realize he had piled up 6 tackles until I saw the box score after the game. That included 4 assisted tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss so he was pushing to the ball on the interior. Those 6 stops placed Briggs behind only Zandier and safety Joey Blount on the tackles list for this game.

Briggs became only the fifth UVA freshman defensive linemen (true or redshirt) to start a season opener since 1986 last week. He didn’t have a tackle in roughly 30 snaps at Pittsburgh so he had more production in box score terms the second time around. Something tells me there’s a lot more to come with him, though.

7. Blocker’s anonymous.

Another surprise in the box score: Jamari Peacock wasn’t credited with a carry. I mean that’s not too surprising because he had one career carry in his career through two years. On Friday night, however, it was surprising because he did get a carry on the final drive of the game. That mistakenly went to Chris Sharp in the play by play and stats.

The correction will eventually give Peacock the longest carry of his career, a 4-yard power run to the right side. Not that Peacock will care one way or the other. He’s quietly gone about his main task for the past 28 games in relative anonymity: blocking. You saw an example of that on the previous possession in the fourth quarter when he led Armstrong through a hole for a nice 11-yard gain to start the drive.

That’s why his teammates were so excited to see that carry Friday. He does that blocking job well and that helps the offense look good.

“He’s phenomenal,” Dubois said. “If you can see out there, he does his job exceptionally and keeps doing it.”

8. Kemp it up.

Virginia knew coming into the season that it could make some serious gains with consistency and production on special teams, particularly with the coverage units and the punt return group. So far this season, all of those areas are off to a good start.

Mendenhall pointed out that he’s pleased with Billy Kemp at punt returner. You could see why in his season debut after he missed the opener due to a suspension. Kemp appears to have the two things that usually make punt returns dangerous: a decisive first move and an immediate north-south burst.

Kemp logged 4 returns for 51 yards against the Tribe, including a 22-yarder. That’s helped Virginia post an 8.57 yards per return average so far this season (45th nationally). That’s a good jump in the early going – UVA ranked 88th in punt return average last season at 6.86 yards per return.

9. First time for everything.

With Wayne Taulapapa out due to injury (he’s expected back for Florida State) following his solid running back debut at Pitt last week, the Cavaliers got a look at several ball carriers in the win. After the second half, it’s easy to see why fans have been eager to see freshman Mike Hollins get touches. In his debut at running back, Hollins led the team with 78 rushing yards on 11 attempts for a healthy 7.1 yards per carry average. He also scored two touchdowns.

Hollins made an immediate splash when he finally got the call in the third quarter. On his first career carry, he scored his first career touchdown. The last back to do that was Jordan Ellis against William & Mary in 2015. On all of his runs, he showed that he’s hard to bring down and that he has good balance. He made decisive cuts and absorbed initial contact well.

Virginia has multiple options at running back and it seems like the coaches have potentially gotten more comfortable with a committee approach this season. Until Hollins got his chances in the second half, PK Kier picked up the biggest workload in place of Taulapapa initially. He tallied 6 carries for 45 yards for 7.5 yards per carry, the best average among the running backs in this game. Lamont Atkins and Taulapapa remain versatile options that block well too.

10. Quick hitters to finish.

It was good to see Chris Moore back in action at safety in hybrid role, though that came in part due to Brenton Nelson sitting out the second half (he’s expected back for FSU). Moore missed all of last season with an injury. … Jordan Mack made only 4 tackles in this game, but watching from the sidelines it felt like more. … One of the pregame keys I mentioned on Sabre TV was the sack margin because it’s such an emphasis for the coaches and players this year. UVA won that category 5 to 0 in this one. … One player that I often end up catching photographs of in practices is sophomore receiver Hayden Mitchell. He just always seems to catch the ball. He got his chance to show that in a game setting Friday and delivered with 2 catches for 49 yards. The sidelines really enjoyed the first one and the TV camera caught a big smile on his face as he came off the field on that catch. … The offense gave Florida State a few wrinkles to think about in prep for next week. A handoff to Tavares Kelly on a jet sweep, a screen pass to a target other than Reed, and more. … I thought the speakers were much clearer at field level with the upgrades there. … Students packed the house for the home opener and Mendenhall mentioned that support right off the bat in his postgame remarks. You should see a similar or better student section turnout for Florida State in another night game next Saturday.

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