It would be easy to say that Virginia football delivered on expectations in Saturday’s opener against the Richmond Spiders. It might be more accurate to say that Virginia exceeds the tempered hopes of the fanbase. The Commonwealth of Virginia is blessed with a plethora of strong FCS programs. Good for football in The Commonwealth, sometimes problematic for the state’s FBS programs.
While UVa has frequently struggled with the FCS programs in Virginia, Saturday was different. Virginia won convincingly against a well coached Richmond team that will likely have another successful season in the Colonial Athletic Association. Unlike 2 years ago, it was clear that Virginia was the better team. Faster, stronger, deeper than their rivals from Richmond.
Most encouraging for Virginia fans had to be the symmetry between the statistics in the box score and the results on the scoreboard. Many games over the past several years, Virginia has won the battle of the box score, only to lose the game on the scoreboard. These were usually games where Virginia found creative ways to beat itself. Saturday, Virginia simply executed its game plan and Virginia fans spent most of the evening watching the relaxing performance one expects in an FBS vs. FCS matchup. Why the change from past years?
Over the past several seasons, when Virginia made a big mistake, it seemed to change their demeanor for the rest of the game. Virginia would play to avoid additional mistakes rather than executing their plan to win the game. During an impressive opening drive on Saturday, quarterback Bryce Perkins threw an ill-advised pass that turned into a fluke pick-six. In a fine change of form, rather than playing scared, worried about another upset at the hands of the Spiders, the Virginia offense scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives turning what could have been a worrisome nail biter into a pleasant blowout.
Another of Virginia’s unique accomplishments over the past 10 years has been finding new and creative ways to beat themselves. Double-digit penalty counts have been their stock and trade. Calling a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty only to break the huddle with 12 players on the field was endemic of Virginia’s creative ineptitude. On Saturday, Virginia had 4 inconsequential penalties that cost the team 24 yards. One of those calls, a late hit on Juan Thornhill, just as easily could have been a no-call. Clearly, the hope is that this is evidence of the disciple Bronco Mendenhall demands from his players and is the start of a new trend moving forward.
One of my markers for outstanding football teams versus also-rans is how well do their receivers block. It is no secret that blocking is not what receivers want to do. They like streaking past defensive backs, making one-handed catches, getting one foot down in the back of the end zone and making the highlight reels on ESPN. However, effective wide receiver blocking is often the difference-maker on successful offensive plays.
Against Richmond, good wide receiver blocks from wide receivers Hasise Dubois and Terrell Jana were key to the success of Bryce Perkins’ first two touchdown runs. This is an encouraging change from the wide receiver spectating that Virginia fans have seen in the past. Good teams execute the little things that make the difference between wins and losses. This was a refreshing improvement for Virginia.
I realize this was an FBS versus an FCS contest, but the team speed differential was noticeable and consequential the entire game. Bryce Perkins was as fast as advertised, Olamide Zaccheaus was as impressive as he was last year, and Tavares Kelly flashed speed that Virginia fans have not seen in decades…if ever.
The obvious caveat to all of this good cheer is that Richmond is not Miami, UNC, or Virginia Tech. Virginia should win this game in convincing fashion, but as we all know, “should” and “did” do not always intersect for Virginia football.
Virginia travels to Bloomington Saturday to play a solid Indiana team that won in Scott Stadium last year. Not surprisingly, Virginia opened as a 6.5 point underdog. Indiana will have more talent and more depth than Richmond. However, many of the year-over-year improvements we saw Saturday should travel next week to Indiana. If Virginia is going to continue the trajectory from last season, it has to prove that it can consistently execute against what will be improving competition throughout the season. Saturday was a good first step. I am not brimming with confidence that Virginia will return home with a win next weekend, but I am not sure I’d bet against it either.