It was sloppy, there's no doubt about that. But after 60 minutes, the Virginia Cavaliers walked away with their first long-sought after FBS victory on Saturday night with a 48-21 defeat of Eastern Michigan. After a first half in which the Eagles had almost as many rushing yards (209) as the Hoos had in total yardage (263), Virginia came back with a strong second-half showing to avoid what could have been a cause for abandonment (deservedly or not) in fans' eyes.
In games where the Cavaliers have scored a touchdown on their opening drive, they've gone on to clinch the win. This happened here with running back Keith Payne's 4-yard touchdown run, and it has also happened against Richmond and VMI.
"This win does a lot of good for us," running back Perry Jones said. "We have forgotten about the past, and started a 'new' season. To us this is the first game of that season, and it is good to get a win."
Saturday's matchup marked the 1,000th game for the Eastern Michigan football program and the first-ever meeting between the Cavaliers and Eagles, but it was also a noteworthy day for minority football coaches and athletic directors. Virginia coach Mike London and UVa athletic director Craig Littlepage hosted Eastern Michigan coach Ron English and EMU athletic director Dr. Derrick Craig in what is believed to be the first Division I football game with the opposing coaches and athletic directors being African-Americans.
But that wasn't the only first of the night.
Virginia used a little bit of trickeration, allowing punter Jimmy Howell to throw his first past attempt -- and completion -- of his career, a pass that resulted in a touchdown, in Trey Womack's first career reception. The pass was the first completion by a Virginia punter since Tom Hagan's 8-yard completion in 2002. With the touchdown pass, Virginia has now had four Cavaliers throw into the endzone -- Marc Verica, Ross Metheny, Michael Rocco and now Jimmy Howell. The last time this happened was in 2003, with Matt Schaub, Marques Hagans, Wali Lundy and Anthony Martinez.
Also noteworthy on the day was Terence Fells-Danzer's kickoff return off of a terrible kick that landed at the 30 yard line. The 70-yard return for a score was the second shortest in Virginia history, with the shortest coming in 1994 by Joe Crocker against Maryland.
The story line, though, is the same as the previous games, though this time with a different ending. There is still a long ways to go for this squad to become competitive within the ACC.
The Eagles' three touchdowns all came off of big rushing plays -- of 55, 31 and 53 yards, respectively. The Eagles, who went 0-12 last season, were able to get 7.1 yards per rush. A defense (described by at least one fan as Virginia's swiss cheese defense) that plays against big rushing teams like Georgia Tech (who had gotten 7.7 yards per rush against UVa earlier this season) has to do better.
Likewise, while on paper, Virginia's attack is well balanced (or at least not one-sided) -- this week it was 181 yards on the ground and 270 in the air -- the Cavaliers need help on their running game. Teams are catching on to Keith Payne (who rushed for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Perry Jones (57 rushing yards), and either new routes need to be tested or, more likely the case, the offensive line needs to work harder to create holes.
"It feels good to win a game and be able to celebrate with the players on what this team can do and can accomplish," UVa coach Mike London said. "Can't let the highs get too high or the lows get too low." Sounds like men's basketball head coach Tony Bennett.
The Cavaliers hope to use this little bit of momentum for next week against Miami in Charlottesville. Kickoff is scheduled for noon, and the game will be televised on either ESPN or ESPN 2.
I'm grateful for the win and know there's a lot of work left for this team. Virginia might not be quite yet on the track we need, but it's good to see that the Hoos are at least winning the games they "should."