Benkert, defense lead football to season-opening win

Senior quarterback passes for three touchdowns as the Cavaliers break their turnover streak

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Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns in Virginia's season opening win over William & Mary. 

Nick Zugris | Cavalier Daily

For the first time since 2013, the Virginia football team opened its season with a win, taking down FCS foe William & Mary, 28-10. The Cavaliers controlled the game from beginning to end, showing solid improvement from last year’s opening loss to Richmond.

“I thought it was a solid effort by all three phases,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the game. “There are certainly things we can improve, but we looked more mature and more confident. I think [we] just played a higher level of football in our opener from beginning to end than we did a year ago.”

Before the game, the stadium held a moment of silence for the victims of events related to the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally that took place in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. The team also debuted the “#HoosTogether” patch on its uniform to show its solidarity with the Charlottesville community. 

“[The Patch] shows that it’s bigger than football. It goes in line with how you see college football respond to [Hurricane] Harvey,” senior quarterback Kurt Benkert said. “It’s enlightening to see all these different communities come together.” 

Virginia received the opening kickoff and began with a quick three-and-out. After the Cavalier defense forced a punt, the offense found a rhythm after a 16-yard run by senior running back Daniel Hamm. The team would drive 80 yards and score for the first time this season on a one-yard run by junior running back Jordan Ellis. Benkert completed five of six passes for 52 yards on the drive.

The Virginia defense stifled the Tribe throughout the first half. The secondary held William & Mary’s junior quarterback Tommy McKee to 14 passing yards and allowed the Tribe to convert on one of six third downs. 

Senior linebacker Micah Kiser credited the offense for helping the defense stay fresh.

“[The offense] played clean — they had the ball a lot in the first half, so we weren’t out there that long … Them controlling the ball and us playing pretty sound when we were out led to a pretty clean game,” Kiser said.

The game reached a stalemate in the second quarter with neither team getting a score. Finally, with 1:31 left in the half, Benkert threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Andre Levrone on a gutsy fourth-and-nine call. 

“[The touchdown] was good for us,” Benkert said. “We had really moved the ball up and down all day, but we hadn’t been able to capitalize. The coaches trust me. They know I’m going to take care of the football.”

William & Mary took the second half kickoff and converted a field goal to get on the board. Virginia answered quickly when sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed took the ensuing kickoff 44 yards, reigniting the crowd at Scott Stadium. Benkert took advantage of the short field and fired a 17-yard touchdown pass to junior halfback Olamide Zaccheaus. Virginia took a commanding 21-3 lead. 

The Cavalier defense could not neutralize McKee’s scrambling throughout the second half. The Tribe quarterback ended as the game’s leading rusher with 89 yards on 15 attempts. 

“The number one thing I took away from today was the scramble work,” Mendenhall said. “We didn’t do a great job with rush lanes.” 

McKee ran for a two-yard touchdown with 6:50 left in the game, cutting Virginia’s lead to 21-10. The Cavaliers went three-and-out in their next drive, but a booming 63-yard punt from junior punter Lester Coleman essentially sealed the game. The Tribe returner fumbled the catch and recovered at his own four-yard line. 

Three plays later, Virginia senior free safety Quin Blanding jarred a McKee pass from the arms of a receiver, and junior outside linebacker Chris Peace caught the ball for an interception. The offense took the field and Benkert sealed the win with a one-yard touchdown pass to Ellis with 0:55 left in the game.

“1-0 is better than 0-1. That’s where we wanted to start, and it didn’t matter what the game looked like for us,” Benkert said. “We just wanted to come out with a win. We did a good job of taking care of the football.”

Benkert started off the season strong, passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Ellis gained 80 yards on the ground in his first game as Virginia’s lead back, adding two touchdowns on offense.

“[Jordan Ellis] was the number one jersey selection for two years in a row because of his work ethic,” Mendenhall said. “The whole team is happy for him whenever he has positive yards or catches a touchdown because of who he is.”

Virginia snapped an important streak on Saturday when they committed no turnovers for the first time in 42 games. Mendenhall made taking care of the football a point of emphasis over the offseason, and the team’s careful play ended the ominous steak.

Virginia will look to stay undefeated next Saturday when Indiana (0-1) visits Scott Stadium, coming off an opening loss to No. 2 Ohio State. Kickoff between the Cavaliers and Hoosiers is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. 

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