Welcome back to Scott Stadium, Virginia football fans. For the first time since the 2019 Commonwealth Cup, there were no restrictions in terms of fan attendance because of the worldwide pandemic. The 42,982 fans inside Scott watched UVA win its fifth consecutive season opener with a 43-0 victory over William & Mary.
“It’s just great to play football and have our fans here,” Virginia head football coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his postgame press conference. “I saw something that I hadn’t seen maybe in my whole time here where as soon as they opened the gates our student section were racing to get their seats up at the front. Yeah, that was a moment that I’m not going to forget, that was just gratifying. And we continued to play and we continued to improve. And it got cleaner and better as it went. And, yeah, I think there’s a lot to build off and certainly a lot to work on, but I like the start of our season. And I liked what I saw in terms of potential diversity and a number of players contributing with room to grow.”
The William & Mary Tribe, an in-state FCS foe led by former Cavalier head coach Mike London, hung tough early. Coach London’s defense played with tenacity and toughness, limiting a touted Virginia offense – one that Mendenhall predicted would “score a lot of points” this season – to two first downs and three points in its first four possessions. UVA led after the first quarter thanks to sophomore Justin Duenkel drilling a 39-yard field goal on the Hoos’ opening drive, which began at the Tribe 24 thanks to a 55-yard punt return from senior Billy Kemp IV.
Virginia broke through with its first touchdown of the season at the 9:00 mark of the second quarter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong connected with sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks twice for 53 yards on this drive, including a key 23-yard completion on third down from the UVA 45. The Wicks receptions set up an Armstrong 2-yard touchdown run that gave the home team a 10-0 lead.
Playing without junior starting quarterback Hollis Mathis, William & Mary turned to true freshman Darius Wilson. A Virginia defense looking to return to its stingy ways following significant struggles the previous season-and-a-half shut down the Tribe offense for most of the game, beginning with five consecutive three-and-outs from the visitors. Wilson and company responded to UVA’s first touchdown with an 11-play, 58-yard drive. William & Mary had 3rd-and-7 on the UVA 10, but a personal foul forced the Tribe to settle for a 42-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
Virginia took advantage of the missed opportunity with a touchdown, gaining a firmer grasp on this season opener. A 40-yard run from designated “football player” Keytaon Thompson helped set up Armstrong’s first touchdown pass of the game, a beautiful left corner fade to senior receiver Ra’Shaun Henry from five yards out. Henry, one of the so-called “super seniors” – those players taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility given by the NCAA because of COVID-19 – and acknowledged as one of the program’s top offseason performers, has five touchdowns in his nine receptions as a Cavalier player. His latest score put the Hoos up 17-0 heading into halftime.
UVA could not make it three touchdown drives in a row, as the Hoos were forced to punt on the opening possession of the second half. William & Mary drove 35 yards on nine plays, but Virginia’s special teams made another big play when senior cornerback Nick Grant blocked Ethan Chang’s 36-yard field goal. Two plays later, UVA’s speedy sophomore receiver Demick Starling raced behind coverage, and Armstrong found him for a 65-yard touchdown pass.
“I think that play is also something that we practice a lot,” Starling said. “I just read the defense and when I saw the ball was in the air, all I could think was touchdown. I just wanted to take my opportunity and make the best of it.”
Virginia closed out the third quarter with a Duenkel 25-yard field goal and a safety, which came as a result of a bad snap that went through the back of the end zone, to take a 29-0 lead. Fourth quarter touchdowns from Armstrong (3 yards) and senior running back Ronnie Walker Jr. (9 yards) closed out the scoring, while UVA’s defense secured its first shutout since the 2018 Belk Bowl.
Armstrong, who is beginning his second season as UVA’s full-time starting quarterback, “broke the rock” in the postgame celebration. It was a well-deserved honor for the redshirt junior. After completing 4-of-8 passes for 39 yards and no touchdowns in the first quarter, Armstrong completed 17-of-23 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns the final three quarters. Thompson led UVA in receptions with five for 66 yards. Wicks was the top targeted receiver, getting thrown to eight times. After some struggles to start, the dynamic sophomore totaled four catches for 94 yards. Armstrong connected with seven other receivers, including Starling on the long touchdown, Henry for two catches for 32 yards and a score, and Kemp four times for 55 yards.
Backup quarterback Ira Armstead saw playing time throughout, primarily being used as a runner. The redshirt freshman wound up leading the Cavalier rushing attack with 54 yards on five carries, edging out senior running back Wayne Taulapapa (five carries, 48 yards) and Thompson (four carries, 43 yards). Another backup quarterback, true freshman Jacob Rodriguez, had four carries for 31 yards. Grad transfer running back Devin Darrington reached double digit yards rushing too, totaling 18 yards on three runs.
In total, the Cavalier offense racked up 545 yards of offense and 22 first downs.
“I would say a little bit jittery, a little bit just forced and just not quite as confident and rhythmic, and the game just seem a little fast as we started, since we have some new players in increased roles,” Mendenhall said of the offense. “And so, with Ra’Shaun Henry and Dontayvion Wicks, and even Jelani (Woods), there’s increased roles for new players and I think that showed as well. And then players that have played a lot like Wayne (Taulapapa) and Billy (Kemp), but even Brennan (Armstrong), right, things were not quite as clean to start. So, the supporting cast will have to continue to grow and develop into their roles, that are now not backup roles or supplemental roles, but kind of primary roles. And then, I think as the game went our protection and our blocking also improved and started, you know, I would say, adequate but not dominant. I just thought it got better as we played.”
The UVA defense held the Tribe to 183 total yards and 11 first downs on 12 drives. UVA had seven tackles for loss – senior outside linebacker Noah Taylor led the team with two. Senior defensive end Mandy Alonso notched UVA’s only sack of the night, though the Hoos did have five quarterback hurries. Preseason All-ACC First Team linebacker Nick Jackson had two QB hurries to go along with a team-high 12 tackles (four solo).
“We did a really nice job with our perimeters and our depth and so everything was inside and in front end; we tackled well for an opening game,” Mendenhall said, assessing the defensive performance. “We didn’t tackle much in fall camp, working to keep our depth as healthy as possible for a long season. That was a little bit of an unknown, except we had experienced players, so I was hoping we would see that and it looked like it was the right call.”
What began as a tough defensive battle turned into a comfortable rout for the home standing Hoos, who welcome Illinois (1-1) to Charlottesville next Saturday, September 11, at 11 a.m.
“Yeah, it was a good little icebreaker this week,” Armstrong said. “Now we start getting to a Power Five, Big 10 conference with Illinois. I’m excited just to go and continue to get better this next week; figure out what we need to work on. Obviously start faster. I’m excited to see what our guys do next week.”
Virginia’s special teams came up big for the Hoos. There were the most notable plays – Kemp IV’s 55-yard punt return that setup the opening score of the game, and Grant’s punt block that prevented a possible score – but there were other bright spots too.
Justin Duenkel looked really good making his two field goal opportunities and all of his extra points. He did boot a kickoff out of bounds late in the game, so that’s something to improve, but overall a successful first collegiate start. Starting punter Jacob Finn boomed a 52-yard punt that was fair caught at the W&M 7. Coach Mendenhall noted the hang time on Finn’s first punt. He too has room to improve, as his second and final punt came in the third quarter and wasn’t great, going 38 yards and giving the Tribe possession around midfield. If we see more of the first punt from Finn, UVA will be in good hands.
In other special teams news, running back Mike Hollins returned the opening kick of the second half 100 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately, the play was called back due to a penalty and Hollins was only credited with a 14-yard return. Billy Kemp IV returned the safety kickoff for 12 yards.
On kick return coverage, redshirt freshman linebacker Jonathan Horton made a big hit on UVA’s final kickoff of the game. Horton’s hit held William & Mary running back DreSean Kendrick to a 12-yard gain and pinned the Tribe at their own 16.
TRUE FRESHMAN REPORT
Quarterback Jacob Rodriguez, offensive lineman Noah Josey, defensive end Michael Diatta, linebackers James Jackson and West Weeks, and safety Langston Long made their collegiate debuts. As noted above, Rodriguez played a running back-type role, and I thought he looked good as a running back. Long was credited with two defensive tackles, and Weeks made a nice solo stop on 3rd-and-2 on William & Mary’s final drive of the game. The Tribe would punt.