UVA football builds confidence with UConn win

The early returns from the 38-18 UVA win over UConn on Saturday? Coach Bronco Mendenhall had some positive thoughts afterward.

uva acc kickoff bronco mendenhall“I think the team played better today than it played last week, and I think last week the team played better than the week before. So we are still improving, there are areas to address, however, the momentum that it generates and the start to the season is always helpful,” Mendenhall told reporters afterward.

The effort on offense and defense was as solid as we’ve seen since Mendenhall took over last season. Virginia gained 626 yards, forced two red-zone turnovers and stopped UConn on three fourth-down plays in plus territory, with the offense converting all three into touchdowns immediately thereafter.

Special teams can still use work. After UVA’s first touchdown, the unit gave up a long kick return, then added to the yardage with a personal-foul penalty, setting up the Huskies at the Virginia 25 on the change of possession.

Placekicker A.J. Mejia connected on a 28-yard field goal and drilled all five of his extra points, but Mendenhall is still reluctant to try field goals beyond 30, going for three fourth downs in UConn territory instead of trying kicks of 35, 48 and 51 yards.

The good news is that the Cavs converted on two to extend drives that ended with touchdowns, but even with that being the case, you’re going to need to have faith in your kicking game as the season wears on.

But that’s it as far as things to work on. Everything else seemed to work well. You had Kurt Benkert, for instance, breaking his own school record, throwing for 455 yards and three touchdowns, on 30-of-40 passing, with one pockmark, a third-quarter interception in the end zone, into coverage that he badly misread.

That one blemish aside, Benkert was lights out, extending drives with third- and fourth-down passes and even a pair of third-down scrambles, though, no, you don’t want to see Benkert doing that too often, considering how think Virginia is at QB.

“I was playing more aggressively, and I think my team needs that,” Benkert said after the game. “They need me to be the guy that they can look to, that when it’s time to get the third down, I’m going to get the third down or the first down. I know that is something that I have to play with.”

Benkert spread the wealth through the air, resulting in three receivers gaining more than 100 yards – Doni Dowling with 136 yards, Andre Levone with 127, and Olamide Zaccheaus with 122.

Zaccheaus was Mr. Everything offensively on Saturday, adding 47 yards on four rushes – a pair of jet sweeps and two runs from the tailback position.

For the day, Zaccheaus had 225 all-purpose yards (including 56 yards on kick returns) and a touchdown. Not bad.

Mendenhall was asked afterward about the game plan involving Zaccheaus going in, and how it was executed.

“Yeah, probably the closest we’ve come yet to putting him in the right places and doing the things he is capable of so far in our tenure here at UVA,” Mendenhall said. “He’s versatile, and he is becoming reliable, and there’s a lot of different things he can do. Seems like we’re just starting to add some consistency and production to that, which is going to be helpful to us.”

The defensive numbers were deceiving in the sense that it didn’t feel like UConn really rolled up 426 yards of offense and 18 points, and in a sense, well …

The points and yards added up, but you had one touchdown on a trick play with the score 31-0, and 153 yards on two fourth-quarter scoring drives against the backups with Mendenhall trying to get live game action for guys off the two-deep heading into a short week.

When it mattered, the D stepped up big-time, ending one UConn drive on an interception at the UVA 1, another on a forced fumble recovered inside the Virginia 5, a third on a fourth-down stop at the Cavs 8, and two others on the periphery of field-goal range.

“One of the things we targeted from a week ago was, if there happens to be a short field defensively, then play well,” Mendenhall said. “And we did that right from the beginning, as well as the fourth down stops, as well as the two-point conversion stops. There might have been three of those, or two, I don’t know how many. So critical moment play was pretty strong defensively, lacked consistency in the fourth quarter especially.”

Senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who had a game-high 15 tackles, including two sacks, one of which came on one of the fourth-down stops, said afterward that the team leaves the stadium today a confident group.

“We’re still getting there, getting there. Like I always tell people, for Coach Mendenhall this isn’t a one-year turnaround,” Kiser said. “This is building the program, building a culture, getting the right guys in, and slowly but surely we’re starting to bite away at that. The season is long from over, but hopefully we can keep riding momentum.”

That’s a good place to be, as Virginia readies for its first road trip of the 2017 season, on the aforementioned short week, at Boise State on Friday night.

It’s a better place to be, following a win, and a 2-1 start, than where things were just a week ago, after the demoralizing loss at home to Indiana.

“Confidence is earned. We work really hard in practice, we work really hard in our meetings, the program works really hard year-round,” Mendenhall said. “And just to emphasize, we are still at the beginning of this process, and we are still at the beginning of this program. But, it is so much fun for me to see the people in the program see the results on the field and be able to enjoy that.”

Column by Chris Graham