Virginia Football weathers BYU, wins opener
Anthony Harris' late pick, Kevin Parks' touchdown salvages dramatic 19-16 victory
Five hours into the Virginia football team’s season-opening game against Brigham Young Saturday, the headlines had been written. Virginia’s previous three quarters of progress on defense and special teams would seemingly be undercut late in a performance that evoked unfavorable memories of 2012. Fans had stuck through a two-hour delay and driving rain only to be disappointed in the fourth quarter.
It took five seconds to change that. Junior safety Anthony Harris intercepted a deflected pass from Brigham Young sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill and pitched it to junior linebacker Henry Coley, who drove it 27 yards to the Cougars’ 13-yard line. One play later, junior tailback Kevin Parks punched it into the end zone, electrifying a weary Scott Stadium crowd and salvaging a 19-16 win to open the season.
“In practice, our linebackers get interceptions sometimes, and [defensive coordinator Jon] Tenuta’s always telling me to pitch it back to someone who’s fast so we can go score,” Harris said. “I figured we needed to score in that situation. The guy wrapped me up, and when I turned around and saw Henry there with his arms open, I just trusted that he could catch it and pitched it to him softly.”
The play came just as the Cavaliers appeared to be unraveling. Brigham Young drove 92 yards in less than three minutes to take a 13-12 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, junior tailback Khalek Shepherd fumbled on the return to give the Cougars the ball in the red zone. Brigham Young capitalized on the turnover, adding three points to put the Cavaliers in a 16-12 hole with just five minutes to play.
Virginia’s near-meltdown prior to the game-winning interception and touchdown was in sharp contrast to its sound play for much of the game. In Tenuta’s debut at Virginia, the defense looked impressive, getting into the backfield and creating pressure throughout the contest.
Hill completed just 13-of-40 passes for 175 yards as the Cavaliers seemed at ease breaking past the Cougar offensive line. Brigham Young was forced to punt on 10 of its first 11 drives, and the defense chased Hill down after a fumbled snap for a safety late in the third quarter.
“My hat goes off to the defensive coaches for the efforts that were out there,” coach Mike London said.
Sophomore defensive end Eli Harold helped anchor the defense with a strong performance, picking up two sacks and three and a half tackles for loss in the game and using his entire six-foot-four, 230-pound frame to bully his opposition. Harold said that he had received tips from Virginia great Chris Long before the game and had scouted Brigham Young offensive line.
“I just really tried to use my hands and try to keep the guy away from me,” Harold said. “I was watching film on [my man], I saw he wasn’t that fast … I knew I could beat him if I could get off on the ball.”
Tenuta was not the only new Virginia coordinator to orchestrate a strong opening act. In his first game on the Cavalier coaching staff, special teams coordinator Larry Lewis led a unit that appeared much improved from a frustrating 2012 season. Freshman tailback Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell started the game off with a 25-yard kickoff return, setting the tone for an impressive debut for Lewis’ unit.
Harris set up the first Cavalier touchdown with a blocked punt in the third quarter that gave Virginia possession at the Cougar 16-yard line, and junior wide receiver Dominique Terrell broke multiple tackles to reel off a 35-yard punt return later in the quarter. With time expiring in the first half, sophomore kicker Ian Frye nailed a 53-yard field goal – the third longest in Cavalier history. Junior punter Alec Vozenilek saw heavy action as the Cavaliers punted 13 times in the game, but he successfully pinned the Cougars within the 20-yard line four times.
“Vozenilek did a great job with catching some snaps that were pretty high and did a great job at getting the ball off,” London said. “We knew we had to make some plays in the special teams, especially with a good team like this.”
Perhaps the most puzzling debuts came from new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild and sophomore quarterback David Watford. Watford at times seemed at ease — breaking tackles and beating defenders on rushes — but he struggled in the passing game, going just 18-for-32 for 114 yards.
Watford’s lone touchdown came on an impressive scramble and throw to junior Darius Jennings in the corner of the end zone, but he also gave away a costly interception on an ill-advised desperation pass while getting hit in the second quarter. Many of the Cavalier drives showed promise throughout the game, but most ended with a punt.
“David can do better,” London said. “I thought we left some throws out on the field. The ball started getting wet there a little bit, so it left his hand high a couple times. David’s our guy, we just got to make sure that he does the things the we are requiring for him to do.”
The rain that affected Watford’s accuracy came in waves, interrupting play and sending fans rushing for cover. As time ran out in the first quarter, Scott Stadium had to be evacuated due to a lightning warning, and straggling fans took shelter under the concourses. When the game finally restarted two hours later, much of the Virginia faithful had returned. London said afterwards he had taken matters into his own hands to make sure they did come back.
“I went on the radio and I urged them to come back, because I knew the BYU fans weren’t going anywhere,” London said. “It was great to see them come back. I appreciate the fans out there for coming back and hanging in with us.”
For those who did return, the win was dramatic but far from flawless. London and Cavalier players celebrated the victory Saturday but also cautioned that their are still improvements to be made.
“I’m so proud of this team,” a hoarse London said. “That’s a very good football team. To have a win like that our first game, our opening game, against a well-coached team, it’s a tremendous boost for this team … We can be happy now, but we can’t be satisfied.”