Virginia comes up just short against No. 7 UCLA, 28-20
Johns and defense shine, but early turnovers prove costly against talented Bruins
Before Saturday afternoon’s 28-20 defeat against UCLA, Virginia football coach Mike London had never lost a season opener in six years at the helm of both the Cavaliers and the Richmond Spiders. Even in 2013 — a down year for Virginia — London guided his team to a rain-soaked season-opening 19-16 victory against Brigham Young.
His record sullied, London sent a clear post-game message: He was proud of his players’ performance against the seventh-ranked Bruins and star redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley, whom Virginia held to 214 all-purpose yards.
“A tremendous effort,” London said. “As I told them in the locker room, [if] you can go toe-to-toe and play a good football team like that, then there’s nothing to hold your head down about.”
In a game defined by staunch defenses, the first-half benching of sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert and the emergence of sophomore backup Matt Johns, Virginia showed it can play with the country’s best teams — but cannot beat them with a sloppy offense.
The Cavaliers surrendered three touchdowns off a fumble and two Lambert interceptions, taking some of the shine off a strong defensive display.
“You take away those errors and you have a very competitive game,” London said.
The Bruins started fast in their first-ever trip to Scott Stadium, as Hundley connected with redshirt freshman receiver Eldridge Massington for a 48-yard reception on the first snap of the game.
Virginia quickly bounced back behind senior middle linebacker Henry Coley and junior defensive tackle David Dean, who respectively stuffed a first-down rush by senior running back Jordon James and blocked Hundley’s third-down pass attempt.
The Cavaliers’ resolve proved consequential when Bruin junior place kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a field goal from 44 yards out.
The Virginia stand set the tone for the first quarter, when the teams combined for seven first downs and zero points.
The Bruins struck less than two minutes into the second quarter, though, when Lambert looked to pick up some passing yards with his team at its own 20.
Senior defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa closed in on Lambert from behind, tipping the ball high into the air as the quarterback attempted to throw. The ball settled in the arms of junior cornerback Ishmael Adams, who sprinted into the end zone for the first points of the game.
The Cavaliers responded with a nine-play, 53-yard drive to the UCLA 18-yard line that produced a 35-yard field goal by junior place kicker Ian Frye. Lambert found redshirt freshman receiver Andre Levrone for a 27-yard gain on third-and-six early in Virginia’s march downfield.
UCLA then dealt Virginia two quick and powerful blows as the first half neared conclusion.
First, senior linebacker Eric Kendricks forced a fumble by Cavalier sophomore receiver Kyle Dockins at the UCLA 25. Junior defensive back Randall Goforth scooped the ball up and made for the end zone, widening the Bruin lead from 4 points to 11 with 2:55 to play.
Kendricks picked off Lambert 95 seconds later at the Virginia 37 and crossed the goal line with UCLA’s third defensive touchdown of the quarter.
Sophomore outside linebacker Max Valles, who sacked Hundley twice, said the team needs to stick together even if one unit struggles.
“We’re all a family,” Valles said. “We can’t get down on our offense if they give up points. … We just have to go out there and play for them and make plays.”
Johns entered under center as the Cavaliers started their next offensive series. He immediately orchestrated a five-play, 75-yard drive, pulling the Cavaliers to the end zone in just 28 seconds. Levrone hauled in the scoring reception on a ball Johns lofted 29 yards down the right sideline.
Johns returned after the break, connecting with senior receiver Darius Jennings for a 23-yard touchdown that cut the UCLA lead to 21-17 with 7:33 left in the third quarter.
Hundley soon asserted himself, taking the Bruins 66 yards downfield in less than three minutes. He completed passes of 15 and 25 yards to get the Bruins into the redzone and, on third and goal, got past freshman strong safety Quin Blanding for a six-yard touchdown run.
Coley, who led the Cavaliers with 14 tackles — two of them sacks — said he sensed Hundley’s frustration at times, as the two engaged in a standoff by making repeated eye contact and “toying with each other” while calling plays.
“I could just tell he was getting flustered a little bit because he never knew where I was coming from,” Coley said. “But he stepped up in the pocket and he delivered certain passes that he needed to to have his team win today.”
Frye banged home another field goal to make it 28-20 with 6:47 to play, and three minutes later, the Cavaliers were knocking on the door again. But at third and 10 on the UCLA 19, Johns misinterpreted the play-call, handing the ball off to sophomore running back Taquan Mizzell when London wanted him to pass.
The Cavaliers then failed to convert on fourth-and-eight. UCLA played out the final 3:20 of the game-clock, slamming the door shut on Virginia with Hundley’s 35-yard pass to junior receiver Jordan Payton.
Miscommunication aside, London praised Johns after the game — though he couldn’t yet say what his strong play means for next Saturday, when the Cavaliers host Richmond.
Johns said the team exhibited strong character in rising to the occasion against a top-10 team.
“Last night in our pregame talk, coach London said, ‘You know, some of you guys are going to need to step up,’” Johns said. “And he was right. … A lot of guys stepped up today, and I was happy with our effort and passion.”