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​Football falls to Richmond in season opener

Virginia endures defensive struggles, loses turnover battle

<p>Although at times impressive, junior quarterback Kurt Benkert and the Cavalier offense largely struggled Saturday against Richmond. The defense was also unimpressive in the&nbsp;37-20 loss.</p>

Although at times impressive, junior quarterback Kurt Benkert and the Cavalier offense largely struggled Saturday against Richmond. The defense was also unimpressive in the 37-20 loss.

It was evident in Virginia’s contest against Richmond Saturday the Cavaliers (0-1) still have plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball. The Spiders (1-0) defeated Virginia 37-20 and earned their first win over the Cavaliers since 1946.

“We knew Richmond was a good football team,” junior quarterback Kurt Benkert said. “They’re really good. Obviously it didn’t go the way we thought it would go, but we prepared, and we saw their film.”

The very first drive of the game was telling of how the rest of the game would go for Virginia. The Cavaliers struggled to slow down the Richmond offense, and the Spiders made a 28-yard field goal to take a lead they would never relinquish.

Virginia’s first kick return previewed what would be a frustrating game offensively, as senior fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves returned Richmond’s kick to the 36-yard line before fumbling and allowing the Spiders to recover the ball.

The defense was again unable to make a stop, and Richmond put points on the board in the ensuing possession — this time making a 35-yard field goal to put the score at 6-0.

Once Virginia’s offense gained possession, the first quarter was nearly halfway over. Senior tailback Taquan Mizzell fumbled and the Spiders recovered the ball once again.

“A fumble is unfortunate. There’s nothing that we can do about that, and as a defense, we just need to go out there and play like we would any other drive,” senior linebacker Zach Bradshaw said. “Make the stop and get the ball back to the offense, which we didn’t do. It’s a buzz kill for sure.”

The defense didn’t follow through after several offensive mistakes, as the Cavalier defense allowed 524 yards — its most since allowing 610 against Clemson in 2013.

Junior linebacker Micah Kiser recorded 14 tackles over the course of the contest to lead the team, but Richmond junior quarterback Kyle Lauletta still threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns.

“We had a couple key mental mistakes, I guess,” Kiser said. “Those little plays become big plays when you don’t do it right. Hopefully we’ll become better.”

Despite some issues with ball security, the offense showed an impressive passing game.

“I thought that Kurt Benkert looked sharp for the majority, many stretches during the game in terms of his delivery and his decision-making,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Ball security was an issue for our team today, and again, that surprised me a little bit.”

Benkert completed 26 of 34 passes for 264-yards and three touchdowns. He tied for most completions and touchdown passes among Virginia quarterbacks in their first career starts. His highlights included a 20-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling in the first half.

However, Dowling suffered an injury in the game and had to sit out for the second half. The defense also lost a pair of sophomores — outside linebacker Cory Jones and cornerback Juan Thornhill — who were also injured during Saturday’s game.

While injuries brought disappointment, the real disappointment came in the results of Mendenhall’s first game as Virginia’s head coach. He stressed that there is now an understanding of where the Cavaliers stand.

“I have a clear reference point now of where we’re starting from,” Mendenhall said, “I think teams play as they’re prepared to play, and so my responsibility is to have a team that performs more cleanly and performs at a higher level than we did today. That’s what I need to do.”

The work that needs to be done is evident, as Virginia’s defense was unable to stop the Spiders’ offense until the second half. Richmond ultimately went 10-for-17 on third downs. The Cavalier defense seemed to have no answer to the Spiders’ offense, which scored on all of its first four drives through the first half. Richmond still scored three touchdowns in the second half to secure their lead over Virginia.

The Cavaliers showed more offensive strength in the fourth quarter after scoring only one touchdown through the first three quarters. Benkert completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who was held out of the first half for a violation of team rules. His third and final touchdown of the afternoon was a 15-yard strike to senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson with 1:38 left to play. However, it was not enough to catch up to the Spiders’ offense, which had already posted 37 points to Virginia’s 20.

“I feel like I did pretty well,” Benkert said. “There were just a few throws in critical situations that I needed to make to get the first downs and we needed to be better on third down and that starts with me, decision making. We’ve got a lot to correct.”

The Cavaliers will regroup as they return to the practice field before traveling across the country to face No. 24 Oregon next week.