Football seeks first win in home matchup against Central Michigan
Cavaliers' defense looks to corral Chippewas' dynamic aerial attack
After losing to Connecticut in the final seconds of last week’s game, the Cavaliers return home to Charlottesville this Saturday looking for their first win of the season.
The loss was Virginia’s (0-3, 0-0 ACC) third straight and marks the 17th time in a row they’ve failed to win a road game.
“This is a first — I haven’t been 0-3 before,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said in a press conference this week. “I’m focusing so much on what I see as growth and improvement, and I’m completely engrossed in the task. This is a massive change effort — it really is, at every turn.”
Used to his winning ways at BYU, Mendenhall has been forced to adjust to a different team in the Cavaliers. During his 11 seasons at BYU, Mendenhall went 99-43, never had a losing season and became ranked 13th among active FBS coaches in winning percentage.
Last week’s loss at Connecticut (2-1, 0-1 AAC) was especially heartbreaking. After a drive led by junior quarterback Kurt Benkert resulted in a 20-yard missed field goal attempt by untested sophomore kicker Alex Furbank, some Cavaliers fans and players were distraught.
“We’re still learning from day to day,” junior cornerback Kirk Garner said. “The biggest key is just progression, going from week to week, practicing hard, focusing on our keys and making sure we’re always taking steps forward and never back.”
Despite their record, the Cavaliers have a number of things going for them. Junior linebacker Micah Kiser has made 34 tackles on the season, good enough for No. 1 in the ACC and No. 10 in the nation. Senior tailback Taquan Mizzell has caught a reception in each of his last 36 games, which is the third-longest streak in the nation, and Benkert has passed for 698 yards on the season, completing 60 percent of his passes. The East Carolina transfer has made a strong start to his career in Charlottesville, and his offensive production will be a key as the Cavaliers head into the ACC portion of their season.
In stark contrast to Virginia’s poor regular season start, Central Michigan (3-0, 0-0 MAC) has come out hot in 2016, beating Presbyterian, then-No. 22 Oklahoma State and UNLV to open the season. The Chippewas have outscored their opponents 123-51 and have won each game by an average margin of 24 points. Although Central Michigan’s only notable win was over Oklahoma State, its impressive performances over the first three weeks of the college football season spells trouble for the Cavaliers.
One of the most impressive players for the Chippewas has been senior quarterback Cooper Rush. Over the first three games, Rush has thrown for 957 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions, cumulating in an impressive total QBR of 72.7, good enough for 26th in the nation among qualifying FBS quarterbacks.
Central Michigan has also seen solid production from junior running back Devon Spalding and freshman running back Jonathan Ward. The two have combined for 53 carries, 301 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cavaliers will also have to play good defense to shut down the Central Michigan receivers, six of whom have caught touchdowns, and four of whom have caught for over 100 yards. One standout has been junior wide receiver Corey Willis, who is averaging 16.5 yards on 11 receptions, four of which have been touchdowns.
Luckily, the Cavaliers are coming off their best defensive performance on the season. Against Connecticut, Virginia allowed only 13 points and held the Huskies to 154 passing yards and 123 rushing yards.
In order to win Saturday, the Cavaliers will need to channel the best parts of their performances over the last three games, and then some. And while they are still the only team in the ACC yet to win a game this season, Mendenhall is confident in the potential for a week four victory.
“There’s probably more optimism now than there was in the offseason that this program, and this team is capable,” Mendenhall said. “We’re gaining momentum rather than losing momentum. It’s uncharted territory. A tangible result would be helpful, but I’m looking for simple successes as well.”
If all goes as planned, the Cavaliers will head into ACC play with their first win under their belt and the momentum needed to finally get the Mendenhall era rolling.
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.