DOUGHERTY: A fearless gameplan

Stellar play-calling and execution led Virginia to a Belk Bowl victory

perkins-celebration

Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins finished the day with 208 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and 81 yards on the ground.

Dorothy Wang | Cavalier Daily

Virginia football had every excuse not to rise up to the occasion of its second bowl game in two seasons.

External expectations seemed to be low heading into the Cavaliers’ matchup with South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Virginia was blown out in last year’s Military Bowl against Navy, and had not beaten a Power Five opponent since October of this season. 

The Gamecocks, on the other hand, came into the Charlotte, N.C. matchup favored due to their strong SEC reputation. Junior quarterback Jake Bentley lit up an elite Clemson defense just weeks prior, and the team had not lost to an unranked opponent all season.

South Carolina was looking for its sixth bowl game win in seven years. Virginia hadn’t won a bowl game in 13 years.

From news outlets to casual fans, the vast majority of people seemed to not believe Virginia could step up to the challenge. Clearly, that group did not include the team itself.

The Cavaliers trounced the Gamecocks, 28-0. 

Coach Bronco Mendenhall had his team fired up enough to outplay South Carolina in every facet of the game. Along with their fire, Mendenhall’s Cavaliers were fearless.

Despite the pressure of not having won a bowl game since 2005 and falling short against Virginia Tech, Virginia stepped up for its seniors in the Belk Bowl by playing without fear.

It started with junior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who very easily could have come into the matchup jittery and anxious. Perkins’s fumble in Virginia’s regular season finale at Virginia Tech ended the Cavaliers’ best shot at knocking off their archrival in years. The Belk Bowl matchup pitted him against an athletic SEC secondary, a daunting task for any signal caller in his first year with a Power Five team.

No one looked more comfortable on the field in Charlotte than Perkins.

The junior was in complete control of the offense he began learning just 10 months ago, with the slip-up in Blacksburg far in the rear-view mirror. He sat in the pocket and delivered strikes to his receivers all afternoon, knowing just when to pull the ball and run.

Perkins finished the day with 208 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and 81 yards on the ground, gashing South Carolina with his arm and legs. His quest for redemption was completed in Virginia’s first bowl-game victory in 13 years.

Perhaps more subtly, another member of the Virginia sideline was out for redemption — offensive coordinator Robert Anae. 

Much of the blame for the Virginia Tech loss fell on Anae’s shoulders after his ultra-conservative play calling in the fourth quarter. With the Cavaliers leading in Blacksburg, Anae questionably ran Perkins or senior running back Jordan Ellis up the middle for little gain and few first downs, allowing the Hokies to remain in the game — and eventually pull off the win. It seemed as though fear of a turnover motivated him to play things too safe.

With a chance to prove his doubters wrong at the Belk Bowl, Anae called a nearly flawless game to propel the offense. He trusted Perkins’ arm enough to deliver on a fourth-and-two early in the game that resulted in Virginia’s first touchdown. Furthermore, rather than abandoning Ellis in the run game as he did in other instances this season, Anae had him pound through the teeth of the Gamecock front lines all day to wear them out.

Ellis finished his Virginia career with a 106 yard rushing performance, and — just as impressively — helped Virginia keep Bentley off the field for most of the game. Virginia had a staggering 42:35 of possession time to South Carolina’s 17:25.

Instead of playing it safe against South Carolina, Anae kept Virginia’s foot on the gas.

With the Cavaliers up 21-0 in the fourth quarter, Anae ran a balanced drive to punctuate the game with a final score instead of restricting his playbook. All in all, he called 31 passing plays and 48 runs, showing unrelenting confidence in both domains of his offense.

Though the unit was solid all season, the Virginia defense also had reason to fear its matchup against the Gamecocks. Having given up at least 30 points in its past two games, many expected a red-hot Bentley to will his offense down the field enough times for a victory. Freshman defensive end Aaron Faumui’s late scratch made getting pressure on Bentley seem like an even more formidable task.

Low expectations didn’t seem to matter for the young unit, as the front seven had its way with Bentley throughout the game. The quarterback was pressured into errant throws on many third downs — converting only two of 13 tries — and rarely could rely on his running game to generate offensive rhythm. A key sack at the end of the second quarter preserved Virginia’s first half shutout when the Gamecocks were threatening.

Bentley broke school records with five touchdowns and 510 passing yards in his matchup at Clemson. Against the Virginia defense, he threw for no touchdowns and two interceptions.

One of these interceptions came at the hands of Virginia cornerback Tim Harris, playing his final game as a sixth-year senior. Overcoming numerous stretches of personal and team adversity throughout his Virginia career, Harris had one of his most productive days in a Virginia uniform, with an important pass breakup also on his stat line. His spirit embodied the program’s rejuvenation, on full display at Bank of America Stadium Saturday.

In a moment in which past Virginia teams may have come out stiff and apprehensive, the 2018 Cavaliers squad played loose at the Belk Bowl. The result was a monumental win for a program that needed it more than most — one that the seniors that built and the hungry underclassmen have taken to the next level.

Mendenhall has begun to shift a once troubled group of players’ focus away from what they have failed to do to a fearless belief in what they can accomplish. With his work far from over — and his most talented roster yet set up for next season — he continues to write the blueprint towards Virginia football’s next stage of success.

Alec Dougherty is a Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached by email at a.dougherty@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @aduggs96.

related stories