Virginia football bye week report — five takeaways from nonconference play

sp-FootballTakeawaysBenkert-MFraser

Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert has recorded 1,249 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and only one interception through four games. 

Mariana Fraser | Cavalier Daily

Four weeks into the season, the Virginia football team owns a 3-1 record at the bye week. With no football game to look forward to this weekend, the CD Sports staff takes a look back at Virginia’s nonconference play and highlights five takeaways to take a closer look at as the team gets ready for ACC play.

Quarterback play

Virginia senior quarterback Kurt Benkert has been fantastic for the Cavaliers thus far, showing marked improvement over last season. Through four games, Benkert has amassed 1,249 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and only one interception. His ability to minimize costly turnovers has been huge for the Virginia offense, allowing them to keep scoring drives alive, and preventing opponents from repeatedly getting great field position. Benkert has also improved his accuracy by almost 10 percentage points — from 56.2 percent in 2016 to 66.1 percent this year. Lastly, his ability to connect with his receivers on deep passes this season has helped open up Virginia’s running and short and intermediate passing games, allowing for Virginia to operate with a more versatile offense.

Momentum

Virginia’s three wins this season have all been by more than two touchdowns. In addition, the Cavaliers put together a school record-setting performance against Connecticut, and then dominated a historically good Boise State team in its own stadium. After finishing 2-10 last season, Virginia now sits with one more win through one month of the season, at 3-1. The Cavaliers are heading into ACC play with a lot of momentum, which can lead to increased confidence. After the win against Boise State, Virginia players spoke about the win against Boise State as an important one for the team. The Cavaliers showed that they can beat a good football team on the road, and it will be interesting to see if they can take this momentum and beat a Duke team that has been very impressive thus far this season.

Talented wide receivers

Benkert owes some of his stellar play and great stats this year to a receiving corps that has outplayed expectations. Virginia’s top three receivers — seniors Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling and junior Olamide Zaccheaus — combined for 902 of the team’s 1,249 receiving yards in the first four games. Levrone leads the team in yards (348) and touchdowns (4) after an injury-riddled last two years — his breakout has been one of the best stories of the season. Dowling continues to produce after a solid junior season, while Zaccheaus has thrived in both the passing and running game as Coach Bronco Mendenhall continues to use him as the Swiss Army knife of the offense. Benkert has found how to leverage the length of his receivers on deep balls, especially in the matchup against Boise State’s undersized secondary. If the receivers continue to thrive, Virginia’s offense may end up as one of the top units in the FCS.

Offensive Balance

Virginia only ran for 55 yards in its lone loss against Indiana — its average rushing yards in wins has been 143.3 yards. The passing game stagnated against the Hoosiers after the running game failed to keep the offense in rhythm. When junior halfback Jordan Ellis gets going, however, the Cavalier offense moves fast and fluid, and holes open up in the secondary for receivers. Mendenhall began mixing Zacchaeus into the running game against Connecticut, and the decision has paid off thus far. The junior averaged 11.8 yards per carry against Connecticut before breaking the game open against Boise State with a 56-yard touchdown run. The run game facilitates flow for Benkert’s offense and will be pivotal towards sustaining Virginia’s exceptional stretch of offensive play.

Defensive consistency

The offense has been electric at times, but Virginia’s defense deserves the title of the team’s most consistent unit. When the offense isn’t clicking, the defense has kept the Cavaliers in the game in many occasions with a lockdown mentality. Opponents have converted only 26 percent of third down attempts against Virginia — down from 43 percent last year. Individually, senior linebacker Micah Kiser looks like one of the best defenders in the nation this year, ranking fifth in the FBS in sacks with five and eighth in total tackles with 45. Quin Blanding, fellow captain and senior free safety, is once again putting up a strong season as the leader of a stiff Virginia secondary that has allowed only five passing touchdowns. As long as the offense puts points on the board, the defense can lock down wins for the Cavaliers down the stretch.

related stories