UVA football breaks tendencies: Blows lead, rallies to win

virginia footballThat was a game UVA football loses, not just under Mike London, but under George Welsh.

Welsh’s 1992 Cavs blew a 28-point lead at home to Clemson in what turned into a 29-28 loss that a lot of folks still aren’t over.

The ghosts of that debacle were present in Scott Stadium when a 28-0 second-quarter lead on Central Michigan had evaporated on the first play of the fourth quarter.

The Chippewas tied the game, had scored on three of its previous four offensive possessions, the one failure coming on a drive that stalled out at the 12, before a missed chip-shot field goal.

Then the CMU defense stopped Virginia and got their offense the ball back.

The writing was on the wall.

The sideline felt it.

“We’re not immune from that being past history, and I’m not sure the stadium was,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It seemed like there was this cultural, We know what this feels like, and I felt that. We are fighting that as hard as we can, but you have to be able to battle through that a few times before that becomes the new normal. Hopefully this will start that.”

The this that will start that began with the Virginia D, clearly gassed, getting a stop at midfield. UVA took over on the ensuing change of possession at its own 15.

On second down, quarterback Kurt Benkert called a play out of the huddle that was designed to have him look to the right of the formation, his first target a slot receiver on an inside slant.

The slant was covered, and the flanker to his right was also covered.

Benkert decided to back up to his left, and as he did, he made eye contact with Olamide Zaccheaus, who didn’t do what a wideout on a scramble normally does.

What you’re supposed to do as a receiver in that situation is break back toward the line of scrimmage to try to give your quarterback a short target.

Zaccheaus, instead, leaked out behind the secondary, and Benkert, showcasing NFL-quality arm strength, hit him in stride streaking up the sideline, throwing across his body, launching a play that became an 82-yard touchdown pass that put the Cavs back on top, 35-28.

The D got another stop, and the offense marched down the field again, this time 73 yards on eight plays, culminating in a five-yard TD pass from Benkert to running back Albert Reid, on a second-and-goal play-action, with Benkert delivering the ball basically in a bucket, with Reid making a Willie Mays-like basket catch as he crossed the goal line.

That made it 42-28. A Kareem Gibson interception with 4:17 to go seemed to put UVA in position to run out the clock, but on the first play from scrimmage on the next series, Benkert hit Taquan Mizzell on a screen pass that, with excellent downfield blocking, turned into a 54-yard TD pass.

Ballgame. UVA was up 49-28.

A garbage-time touchdown for Central Michigan with 48 seconds left gave us our 49-35 final.

After the Chippewas had fought back from 28 down to tie it, it was easy to imagine a 49-35 final in their favor.

Kudos to Mendenhall, who earned career win #100 on Saturday, and his players for being able to recover from a near-debacle.

“It’s amazing how it can look so easy and then so difficult in the same game and the same stretches. But to have it look easy and look difficult and then find a way to regain poise, momentum and confidence to then execute enough to win the game against a team that went on the road and beat a pretty good other team, I’m impressed. There’s a chance that there will be more of these types of games for all of us,” Mendenhall said.

OK, for the sake of the fan base, it would be nice to cut down on the blown 28-point leads, but point well-taken.

Because, how many teams blow 28-point leads and still win?

“A big thing we’re working on is staying together,” said wideout Doni Dowling, who had five catches for 98 yards in the win. “If you notice, our sideline is completely different from last year – completely different from the first game. We stay together. As long as we stick together and encourage our teammates, the fans come around, and it’s contagious.”

“We are not tense at all. We don’t tense up,” said Reid, who had 47 yards on 10 carries, and scored touchdowns on the ground and through the air. “That’s the one thing coach tells us. Don’t tense up, just play the game, and we got four quarters.”

It’s also one win, and the first of a season that began with fans hoping to see Virginia in bowl contention for the first time since 2011.

The 1-3 Cavs, though, have something to build on with the ACC schedule kicking off next week at Duke.

A bye week follows the ACC road opener, with three straight conference home games to follow.

Is a 4-4 record at the end of October possible? Maybe, maybe not. Stranger things have happened.

Like a team blowing a 28-point lead at home and still winning big.

Story by Chris Graham