Two statements were made Saturday at Scott Stadium, and Virginia stood behind both of them.
The first was that despite recent events, Charlottesville is a peaceful, inclusive city.
The second was that FCS teams don’t have the run of the place.
Kurt Benkert passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns to help the Cavaliers open the season with a thorough 28-10 victory over William & Mary.
U.Va. (1-0) outgained the Tribe 354 yards to 240. Facing an experienced defense, William & Mary (0-1), which plays in the CAA, finished with just 72 passing yards.
The Cavaliers’ win was a far cry from last season’s opener, a humbling 37-20 loss to FCS member Richmond that gave then first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall a clear view of how far his fledgling program had to go.
“Winning college football games is hard,” Mendenhall said Saturday. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in our program, and we have done a lot of work in our program. I’m just proud of the guys.”
The game, played on a dreary, unseasonably chilly afternoon, was full of reminders of last month’s racially driven violence in Charlottesville, which U.Va.had hoped to use as motivation.
William & Mary, though, had other ideas – especially late.
Tommy McKee’s 2-yard touchdown run capped a 13-play, 71-yard drive that included a pair of fourth-down conversions to pull the Tribe to within 21-10 with 6:52 left in the contest.
Only when Chris Peace intercepted a McKee pass with 4:28 left in the game could U.Va. breathe easy. That led to Benkert’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Ellis, sending much of the damp crowd of 38,828 to the exits with less than a minute to go.
Benkert, a senior, said that when William & Mary scored its lone touchdown, he saw a turning point.
“I think that’s when we really felt the difference,” he said. “Last year would’ve been like, ‘Oh, crap. How are we going to respond?’ And it didn’t matter. It didn’t faze us at all. We went right down and took care of the business.”
The Cavaliers snapped a 42-game streak with at least one turnover dating back to Oct. 12, 2013.
McKee, a junior who won the start in a three-man battle but shared time with sophomore Brandon Battle, was held to 63 yards on 6-of-12 passing.
“I do not know if it was really pretty,” Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said of McKee’s play, “but I thought it was very gutty. He really competed.”
Ellis, a junior, rushed for a team-leading 80 yards on 20 carries.
Before McKee’s score, U.Va. appeared to be in complete control.
The Cavaliers stretched their lead to 21-3 when Benkert rolled to his left and hit Olamide Zaccheaus near the front left pylon for a 17-yard touchdown with 7:08 remaining in the third quarter. The play was set up by Joe Reed’s 44-yard kickoff return, an instant retort to a 41-yard field goal off the foot of William & Mary’s Kris Hooper.
U.Va.’s offense seemed largely stale through much of the first half, until Mendenhall – moments after freshman kicker A.J. Mejia badly mishit his first career field goal try, from 42 yards – rolled the dice.
Facing fourth and 9 on the Tribe 34 with a 7-0 lead, Benkert hit a streaking Andre Levrone, who had blown by cornerback Braeshawn Smith in the back of the end zone with 1:31 left in the half.
U.Va. converted 2 of 4 fourth-down tries.
“I think we managed the fourth-down scenariosand the field position well in terms of when to go for it and when not to,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers had 216 yards of total offense in the first half to William & Mary’s 68.
It was more than just a football game for U.Va.’s players, who were trying to help restore their city’s reputation.
There were numerous nods to last month’s violence, which ultimately resulted in three deaths.
Following a pregame moment of silence, the Cavaliers came out wearing jersey patches that read “#HoosTogether,” part of a campus-wide initiative to encourage inclusiveness.
Before the game, the Tribe took the field and revealed T-shirts under their jerseys reading “UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL” as a show of unity with U.Va.
William & Mary issued a statement the school said was “in the team’s words.”
“The expression,” it read, “represents our desire to make a positive statement about our shared beliefs in cultivating a society based on respect for people of all ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds and one that embraces unity, civility and loving one another despite our differences.”
A first-quarter video showed interviews with U.Va. coaches and current and former athletes giving their opinions about Charlottesville.
Soon after, Ellis finished off an 13-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown dive over right guard with 4:27 left in the first quarter, and the Cavaliers were off and running.