It was just 14-10 at halftime, and the relative few UVA fans who showed up for Saturday’s game with Kent State were restless. The Cavs had come into the game as 27-point favorites, but they were outplayed by the Golden Flashes, whose most recent effort was a 66-0 pasting at the hands of Ohio State.
After what turned into a 45-13 Virginia win, coach Mike London wasn’t able to share much of his stirring halftime pep talk that turned things around, because he said it wasn’t him.
“It wasn’t so much about what I said, it was about what the senior leadership said,” London said. “We talk about this all year, about expecting and demanding more from each other, and the first half wasn’t indicative of the way we have been playing. They went out in the second half and all phases, offense, defense, special teams, they all went out and performed to the standard that we should expect. Again, my hat goes off to the leadership.”
Kent State (0-4) outgained Virginia 260-210 in the first half, but gained just 58 yards after halftime, while Virginia put up 310 yards in the second half, taking over the game in the trenches, running for 198 yards in the final 30 minutes and holding the Flashes to just 16 yards on the ground.
“We knew we had to step it up,” said freshman safety Quin Blanding, who had a team-high 13 tackles Saturday. “We had to bring our fire and our swagger back out to the game and just play our defense and get after it. We knew we couldn’t take Kent State lightly and we came out sluggish in the first half. We just kept fighting.”
“You always want to do well when you first come out, but things don’t always go like you planned, and that’s football,” said senior tailback Khalek Shepherd, who had 58 total yards on the day, including a 25-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. “This team is set up to play hard from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. We believed we were better than the way we played in the first half. We just kept plugging away, and it worked out for the best.”
A week after not forcing a turnover in a 41-33 loss at BYU, Virginia forced six against Kent State, turning a first-quarter interception by Maurice Canady into a 69-yard pick-six, and getting a pair of second-half scores on short drives that started in the Kent State red zone after turnovers.
“It’s part of a defense that is a pressure defense, which means getting your hands on the ball, as Maurice did when he returned it for a touchdown, causing sack fumbles, and interceptions by being in the passing lanes,” said London, whose defensive unit has now forced 19 turnovers in five games this season.
“It’s important for us to create turnovers for our offense,” London said. “I believe there are maybe 16 possessions in a game, and if you can force that many turnovers, then you’re taking the ball away from them and giving it back to our offense. It’s important for us defensively. That’s who we have to be to give ourselves a chance.”
The UVA offense, for its part, put up its second straight 500-plus-yard effort, ending the game with 520 yards total offense, after gaining just 57 yards in the first quarter that was otherwise dominated by Kent State.
“The production is important. Executing is always critical,” London said. “When you execute and you can perform, it leads to production and that’s what we saw in various aspects so we have to keep doing that and keep improving. I believe we had nine penalties today, which is way too many. But at the same time guys found a way to make plays.”
Matt Johns had a somewhat shaky day after getting the start at quarterback for injured starter Greyson Lambert. Johns was 17-for-28 passing for 227 yards and two touchdowns, but two second-quarter interceptions in the red zone kept the game close into the third quarter.
“I don’t get very nervous, but today I definitely was a little nervous,” Johns said. “It was more anxiousness than anything else. I was excited since it was my first college start. We started off slowly, but I’m glad we came out strong in the second half.”
The win, expected though it was, was what Virginia needed with a huge ACC game at home next week with Pitt looming. Both the ‘Hoos and the Panthers are 1-0 early in the ACC season. A win for UVA puts them at 2-0 heading into a bye week and what would then be a pivotal road game coming out of the bye at defending Coastal Division champion Duke.
“It’s going to be exciting,” said senior tailback Kevin Parks, who had 61 yards and 12 carries, four receptions for 43 yards and two touchdowns. “I know Eli [Harold] asked for a white out. So, playing under the lights is going to be fun. We have a good team ahead of us and we have to be ready because we know they’re going to come out strong.”
First things first. The win over Kent State may have been expected, but you can’t take anything for granted, as Pitt, which was upset by Akron, 21-10, at home on Saturday, can attest.
“I’m very happy and proud of particularly the second half effort the guys displayed,” London said. “Kent State played hard and those kids fought the whole way. I was proud to see a number of guys have a chance to play. We need that going into the stretch here of conference games.”
– Column by Chris Graham