CHARLOTTESVILLE — Finally, enough with the cupcakes. Onward to South Bend!
Oh, right. That halftime score on Saturday night.
We probably should spend a little time on this one before Virginia packs for its monumental test at Notre Dame next weekend.
First, the good news: The Cavaliers are 4-0 for the first time in 15 years. That achievement was in serious doubt here for most of the night, but it’s been achieved, as No. 21 UVa rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat Old Dominion 28-17.
“Way better than the alternative,” UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Note to self: The next time the Monarchs are posted as anything close to four-touchdown underdogs against anybody, book an immediate flight to Vegas. Or better yet, hop in the car and drive to any of the nearby states that were smart enough to build sportsbooks after the federal government decriminalized them.
ODU was a 27.5-point pup when it beat Virginia Tech in Norfolk last season. The Monarchs were 30-point dogs in Blacksburg on Sept. 7, when they made it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter before succumbing to a very similar score (31-17) to this one.
They were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the Conference USA East, but they sure don’t look like it when they play the commonwealth’s big boys.
ODU had a near-touchdown thwarted by a holding call on Saturday’s opening kickoff. That was the first of many signals that this wasn’t going to be some jaunt through Jiffy Lube for the Cavaliers.
Plenty of others appeared quickly. Two uncharacteristic personal-foul penalties by UVa in the first quarter. A highlight-reel catch by an ODU receiver being covered by UVa’s top NFL prospect. Groan-inducing missed tackles by a UVa unit that ranked No. 2 in the ACC (behind juggernaut Clemson) in sacks and total defense coming into the night.
When halftime arrived, the Monarchs were strutting off the field, waving their arms to the pocket of ODU fans among the Scott Stadium crowd of 44,573. They led 17-7 and had held Virginia to a whopping 66 yards. Scintillating UVa quarterback Bryce Perkins didn’t just look human; he looked worse than pedestrian.
The energy in this place, so titillating during last week’s win over Florida State, took an eternity to get rekindled. It finally happened when UVa unfettered its pass rush and forced ODU into the mistake that turned the game.
With five minutes gone in the third quarter, UVa linebacker Charles Snowden put serious heat on ODU quarterback Stone Smartt off the edge. Smartt panicked, tried to dump the ball off in the flat, and instead saw the pass picked by Zane Zandier and returned 22 yards the other way for a touchdown.
The defense ultimately won this one for UVa. Snowden led the way with his 15 tackles and two sacks, but it was Joey Blount who swooped in to stop Smartt on a fourth-and-1 try from the Monarchs’ 29-yard line.
Two plays later, the Cavaliers had the lead. It was their first of the game — with 10:16 remaining.
And that’s what will keep these guys in the film room after hours this week: trailing ODU for nearly 50 minutes on their home field. The Monarchs certainly appear to be a better team than the preseason forecast suggested, but they’re still a team the Cavaliers should put away much earlier.
The fact that they didn’t might cost them a rise in the rankings. It had other, more practical ramifications, too. Perkins had to stay in the game all night and got knocked off his feet often.
The Cavaliers got a huge fright with 3:43 remaining, when Perkins appeared to twist his right ankle when he was tackled trying to recover a ball on the ground. He stayed down for a while, surrounded by trainers, a hush falling over the stadium.
But then he got up. He jogged off the field, slapping the hands of his teammates on the way. He would re-enter the game two snaps later and finish the game.
Ultimately, the moment encapsulated this game: a scare, but only that.
So enough with the plucky four-touchdown underdogs. Onward to South Bend.