GOSSAGE: Benkert-led offense shows talent, resilience
Junior quarterback Kurt Benkert entered Saturday’s game against Central Michigan with so-so numbers. The transfer from East Carolina had tossed a total of five touchdowns to four interceptions — the most among ACC quarterbacks — and averaged roughly 232 yards passing per game.
Benkert’s average quarterback rating — a metric that ranks each signal caller on a 1-100 scale based in part on his “clutch” or win factor — barely broke 50 prior to Saturday.
He’d struggled to settle in his last time out, completing only 23 of 42 passes for 241 yards and no touchdowns in the painful 13-10 loss at Connecticut. His forced throw early in the fourth quarter found the arms of an opposing defender, handing the Huskies back the football the very next play after the Cavalier defense had recovered a fumble on its own 26-yard line. The turnover set up Connecticut to score its only touchdown of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Benkert held up his limp left shoulder on the sidelines. Another hit he’d taken that spun him, slammed him and crumpled his shoulder inward seemed to have done some amount of structural damage. But the tough kid Benkert stayed in the game and, down the stretch, gave Virginia a chance to win. Afterwards, the cameras showed his shoulder propped in a sling.
To let alone suit up a week after the physical and mental toll he took was gritty. But then to do what Benkert did on the field — shattering the school record for passing yards in only his fourth ever start as a college quarterback — man, was that studly.
“It was a lot of collective effort from a lot of different guys,” Benkert said. “That last one, Smoke [Mizzell] took a swing for 53 yards, and I mean, I didn’t really have to do much. We’ve got a lot of really good players, and our o-line is getting so much better every week. And it’s just, the whole kind of cohesiveness of the offense is coming together really well.”
En route to a 49-35 win, his team’s first of the season as well as coach Bronco Mendenhall’s career 100th, Benkert completed 27 of a season-high 43 attempts for 421 yards and five touchdowns. After a shaky opening drive that nearly ended in a pick only to end in a 3-and-out, Benkert took advantage of a short field.
The Cape Coral, Fla. native delivered a spiral 15 yards to speedster wideout Olamide Zaccheaus in the end zone for the game’s first score. Benkert, Zacchaeus and the rest of the Virginia offense were just getting started Saturday. By the 10:34 mark of the second quarter, the Cavaliers led Central Michigan 28-0. Albert Reid and Mizzell had each added four yard rushing touchdowns, bookending Keeon Johnson’s 13-yard touchdown reception.
They were rolling, thanks in large part to the decision-making of their signal caller, but then the Cavaliers halted. A capable Chippewa offense closed out the half with a one-yard touchdown run and then an 85-yard touchdown reception to cut it to 28-14. Benkert had completed just one pass over Virginia’s final two drives, each of which ended in a punt. His stagnant offense couldn’t make anything happen out of the half either as punter Nicholas Conte’s big leg was called upon once more.
When the Cavaliers stopped Central Michigan in the red zone on its ensuing drive and then as an added plus the Chippewa kicker botched his 29-yard field goal attempt, the game felt safer. Sure, there was a lot of time left on the clock, 7:34 in the third, but the momentum appeared to be back behind Virginia.
What a difference one moment can make.
Three plays later, Central Michigan defensive back Amari Coleman read the eyes of Benkert — who’d at times telegraphed the quick screen to Zacchaeus — and darted to the football. Without much pursuit, Coleman returned the interception 47 yards to the house. A groan from the Virginia crowd echoed in Scott Stadium.
“It just happens,” Benkert said. “It is football. They jumped the screen… I didn’t think he was going to actually catch it, but it was a really good play by him. We’ve been in tough situations already earlier this year, and none of that really shakes us.”
Even after Central Michigan tied the score, 28-28, concluding its methodical 11-play, 89-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown catch at the start of the fourth, Benkert and the Cavaliers believed in their preparation and will to win. They responded to adversity in a way that no other recent Virginia football team has.
If ever there were a definitive transition to the Mendenhall era, it was the final 10 minutes Saturday. Benkert at the helm, the Cavaliers scored the game’s next 21 points on drives of 86, 73 and 53 yards, respectively, to seal the deal. The big-play potential of Benkert and Virginia was finally on full display, the quarterback connecting with Zacchaeus for an 82-yard score and later Mizzell for a 53-yard touchdown.
Mizzell met his quarterback Benkert in celebration. The two Cavalier players haven’t been together very long, but their trust in one another is evident. Even when Benkert threw the pick-six, that trust endured.
“He’s a first year starter,” Mizzell said. “He’s just settling in, taking what the defense gives him. That’s our quarterback. I believe in every decision he makes. Whether it’s a bad decision or the right decision, you know I know he’s going to come back and capitalize. And that’s what he did.”
Apart from his ability — the difficult throws he makes look easy with his arm strength and accuracy — Benkert is a proven leader, the kind of individual Mendenhall will recruit in the coming years to maintain a winning culture at Virginia. Benkert and his teammates instilled that culture in the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter Saturday.