Virginia surges past Central Michigan, 49-35
The Cavaliers earn first win of the Mendenhall era
As the Virginia football team stormed onto the field to face Central Michigan, there was a nervous feeling amongst the crowd — a worry of impending doom.
“We’re not immune from that being past history and I’m not sure the stadium was,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It seemed like there was this cultural, ‘We know what this feels like’ and I felt that."
However, the Cavaliers (1-3) appeared to be a transformed team over the course of the first quarter against the Chippewas (3-1).
Virginia was an unstoppable force for the first 15 minutes of the contest. Junior quarterback Kurt Benkert finished an impressive showing with 421 yards and five touchdowns. His performance was historic, as he broke the school’s passing yards record in just his fourth start as a Cavalier. Benkert was reluctant to take all the credit for his accomplishment.
“It was a collective effort from a lot of different guys,” Benkert said. “The offense is just coming together really well.”
The sidelines were surging with energy after the defense forced a three-and-out and the Central Michigan punt was short, allowing Virginia to start the drive in its opponent’s territory for the first time this season.
Benkert polished off the drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. The Cavaliers continued to make stops, and the offense added more to their score as senior big back Albert Reid ran four yards for a touchdown. Redshirt freshman tight end Richard Burney rushed into the end zone to give Virginia the two-point conversion — the first successful two point conversion for the Cavaliers since attempting one in 2013 against Georgia Tech.
Benkert continued to hit his targets early in the second quarter when he connected with senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson for his second touchdown pass of the afternoon. Virginia added its last score of the half early in the second quarter when senior tailback Taquan Mizzell stormed into the end zone.
The Cavaliers held a lead of 28-0, and finally it seemed as if Virginia fans’ previous worries could subside.
However, the Chippewas started to cut into the Cavalier lead in the second quarter, adding on two touchdowns, including one 85-yard touchdown pass with just over two minutes left in the half to knock the wind out of Virginia before the intermission.
Central Michigan continued to chip away at the lead after halftime. Junior defensive back Amari Coleman intercepted a Benkert pass and returned the ball 47 yards for a touchdown, bringing the score to 28-21. The Chippewas stopped the Virginia offense in their tracks — keeping them from scoring in the remainder of the third quarter.
The worries of Cavalier fans started to creep up once again.
Central Michigan confirmed those worries when they tied up the score 28-28 at the beginning of the fourth quarter with a 14-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Cooper Rush.
“There were players going up and down the sideline and rallying the team,” Mendenhall said. “They were saying that we need everybody.”
The encouragement helped, as the team’s energy never wavered, and Scott Stadium was filled with the sounds of the “Good Old Song” once again.
“We got rid of [the mindset] that when we get down or somebody comes back that the game is over,” Reid said. “We just keep going.”
The Virginia faithful were rewarded with 9:36 left in the game, as Benkert fired an 82-yard pass that landed perfectly in the hands of Zacchaeus for a touchdown. Sophomore placekicker Alex Furbank sent the extra point straight through the uprights to give the Cavaliers a 35-28 lead.
The defense kept the momentum going on the ensuing Central Michigan drive, forcing the Chippewas into another three-and-out. The offense followed suit, as Benkert kept the chains moving in a 73-yard drive. Reid ran into the end zone to extend Virginia’s lead to 42-28.
“We practiced that all week, we practice when things go wrong, somebody has to step up,” Reid said. “We knew it was going to be a breakthrough.”
Not only did Cavalier fans breathe a collective sigh of relief — they rejoiced — as redshirt freshman center back Kareem Gibson intercepted a Rush pass to stifle the Chippewas again and give Virginia possession.
“When my coaches said, ‘We’re coming to you,’ and I said, please do,” Mizzell said.
The ball was passed off to Mizzell on the ensuing drive, and he smoked the Central Michigan defense for 53 yards to the endzone, giving the Cavaliers a 49-28 lead. Central Michigan added on a late touchdown to bring the final score to 49-35, but it was all but forgotten after back-to-back sensational Virginia plays.
“That's a happy group of young men in that locker room,” Mendenhall said. “I'm certainly not saying we've arrived, but it's a nice start.”
Yells and cheers from the neighboring locker room punctuated Mendenhall’s postgame press conference. With Saturday’s victory, the coach earned his 100th career win.