Some of the faces on the sideline may be new. But the overall result remains the same.
New Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall has enacted wholesale changes in the football program during his first eight months. But few of them paid off in the season opener. The Mendenhall era began with a thud Saturday as the Cavaliers lost to Richmond 37 – 20. In a battle of FBS vs. FCS teams, Virginia never really posed much of a threat.
The Cavaliers couldn’t hold onto the ball on offense and couldn’t stop Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta on defense. UVA surrendered four turnovers, including a costly red zone fumble, and appeared stunned by Richmond’s aggressive offensive attack. Lauletta picked UVA’s pass defense apart, going 24 for 35 for 337 yards and 3 touchdown passes.
The game unfolded poorly for UVA from the start. After an opening Richmond drive led to a field goal, senior Cavalier fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Richmond capitalized with another field goal and led 6-0 before Virginia’s offense touched the ball. UVA quickly drove to the Richmond 5 yard line behind the play of junior quarterback Kurt Benkert. But a Taquan Mizzell fumble squandered the scoring opportunity.
Mizzell’s fumble may have been the most important play of the game. Lauletta immediately led the Spiders on a 95-yard touchdown drive, which put them up 13-0. Virginia never moved closer than 6 points again. Richmond racked up 524 total yards and went 10-for-15 on third downs.
UVA’s lone bright spot on the day was the play of Benkert. The junior signal-caller flashed the arm strength and mobility that helped him win the starting job. Benkert found Doni Dowling on a 20-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter. Benkert read the defense, scrambled to his right, and threw on the run to an open Dowling at the side of the end zone. He later led Virginia on two fourth quarter scoring drives. Benkert finished 26 for 34 for 264 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception.
The loss served as a stark reminder of the challenges facing Mendenhall as he tries to turn Virginia’s program around. Virginia’s defense looked worse than it did last season, which is saying a lot. And UVA’s stable of running backs were almost wholly nonexistent. Virginia rushed for a 38 yards on the day, and Mizzell was completely bottled up.
Saturday’s loss was reminiscent of many of the despairing efforts the Cavaliers have posted in recent memory. But make no mistake, this wasn’t a blowout loss to 2015 Boise State or 2013 Oregon or 2010 Florida State. This is Virginia’s first loss to U of R since 1946. Richmond could very well compete for an FCS national championship, but Virginia will face bigger, stronger, and faster teams this season.
The Hoos, now with Mendenhall at the helm, still have a long way to go.