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Virginia football shuts out William & Mary in season opener

The Cavaliers’ defense smothered the Tribe, leading to a dominant win despite a shaky start from the offense

<p>Sophomore wide receiver Demick Starling celebrates with his team after hauling in a 65-yard touchdown catch.</p>

Sophomore wide receiver Demick Starling celebrates with his team after hauling in a 65-yard touchdown catch.

Fans returned to Scott Stadium — 42,982 to be exact — for the first time in over 20 months and the Virginia football team certainly gave them something to cheer about in a 43-0 victory over in-state rival William & Mary. The Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) started slowly on offense, but they soon picked it up and began to slice through the Tribe’s (0-1, 0-0 CAA) defense with ease. The defense, however, was unrelenting throughout the game, barely giving the opposition a chance to sniff the scoreboard.

“I saw something that I hadn’t seen maybe in my whole time here where as soon as they opened the gates, our student section, they were racing to get their seats,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That was a moment I’m not gonna forget. It was just gratifying.”

After electing to start the game on defense, Virginia forced a quick three-and-out, and on the ensuing punt, senior wide receiver Billy Kemp faked out a couple of William & Mary defenders before taking off for a 55-yard return down to the Tribe 24-yard line. However, the Cavaliers could not capitalize, gaining only two yards in three plays before sophomore kicker Justin Duenkel was sent on to drill a 39-yard field goal — the first field goal of his collegiate career — and put his team on the scoreboard for the first time in 2021.

On Virginia’s following offensive possession — following another three-and-out by William & Mary — junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong completed his first pass of the season on a 27-yard completion to senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson. The Cavaliers stalled out once again though, this time going for it and fourth down and having redshirt freshman quarterback Iraken Armstead’s run attempt shut down well short of the line to gain.

Both offenses struggled throughout the first half with neither side able to gain much traction. Despite benefiting from exceptional field position — twice starting with the ball inside the Tribe 40-yard line — Virginia suffered from several miscues as the team appeared to be working out the kinks that go along with a new season.

It was not until the Cavaliers’ fifth drive of the game — starting with 10:59 remaining in the first half — that they were able to find the endzone. Armstrong ripped off two consecutive big passes to sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks for a total of 53 yards down to the opposing two-yard line. From there, Armstrong punched it in on a read-option run for a touchdown.

The Tribe finally found an answer on offense, converting their first first down of the game with nearly a quarter and a half already in the books. William & Mary put together an 11-play, 58-yard drive lasting over five minutes, but Virginia’s defense held strong inside the redzone and forced a field goal attempt from redshirt freshman kicker Ethan Chang. However, an unsportsmanlike penalty pushed William & Mary back 15 yards, and Chang sent the 42-yard attempt wide left.

The Cavaliers really seemed to find their rhythm on the ensuing drive, marching 75 yards down the field in just under three minutes. The drive was capped off by a 5-yard Armstrong fade pass towards the far corner where senior wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry leaped in the air to haul in a difficult catch to extend the Virginia lead to 17-0 and effectively taking the game to halftime.

The Cavaliers put together a near-perfect first half on defense, holding the Tribe to just 84 yards of total offense and only 22 passing yards. Interestingly, William & Mary actually held the time of possession advantage by nearly four minutes, as even Virginia’s scoring drives used up little time. 

After a kickoff return for a touchdown was called back by a penalty, the Cavaliers went three-and-out, giving way to another solid Tribe drive that stalled out in the redzone. Once again, William & Mary sent Chang out to attempt a field goal, but this time it was blocked by senior cornerback Nick Grant, keeping the Tribe still scoreless on the night.

Virginia then delivered the knockout blow as Armstrong hit speedy sophomore wide receiver Demick Starling in stride on a 65-yard touchdown bomb on just the second play of the drive. The Cavaliers quickly got the ball back, and on their ensuing offensive possession, they came within a dropped pass away from another touchdown and instead had to settle for a short field goal from Duenkel, pushing the score to 27-0.

Two plays later, an errant snap went over the head of William & Mary freshman quarterback Darius Wilson and out the back of the endzone, resulting in a safety and two more points for Virginia. Following the safety, the Cavaliers swiftly drove down the field, reaching the endzone on a three-yard race to the pylon by Armstrong.

Senior running back Ronnie Walker Jr. capped off the night’s scoring with 6:52 remaining in the game on a tough nine-yard rushing touchdown. Virginia’s defense did not let up the pressure, and the Cavaliers completed the shutout, winning 43-0. The shutout marked the second of Mendenhall’s tenure in Charlottesville and the first since 2018. 

“We did a really nice job with our perimeters and our depth,” Mendenhall said. “Everything was inside and in front, and we tackled well for an opening game.”

Despite a shaky start, Armstrong finished with an impressive statline, throwing for 336 yards while completing two-thirds of his passes. He also posted four total touchdowns and did not throw any interceptions, a good sign for Virginia fans after he threw 11 interceptions last year. Wicks led the way among receivers recording four catches for 94 yards with Kemp and Thompson also hauling in four catches each for upwards of 50 yards.

On defense, junior inside linebacker Nick Jackson amassed 12 total tackles, picking up right where he left off last year. Senior free safety Joey Blount added eight tackles, while senior defensive end Mandy Alonso picked up the Cavaliers’ only sack on the night.

Virginia will look to continue its strong start to the season next week at home against a Power 5 opponent in Illinois. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.

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