Consider this admiration from afar. Admiration that a team wins when punting 13 times, gaining a meager 223 yards and losing the turnover battle. Wins from behind in wretched conditions thanks to a defense and special teams that required offseason overhaul and coaching changes.
Virginia accomplished all those things Saturday with a 19-16 season-opening victory over visiting Brigham Young. I was in Atlanta watching Virginia Tech’s 35-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama – the Hokies punted 13 times, too – but followed the proceedings in Charlottesville best I could online.
The win is Mike London’s sixth in as many seasons as a head coach, four at Virginia and two at Richmond, but safe to say this one was unique.
(Deadline prohibited our faithful print correspondent from getting quotes.)
“That was amazing,” London said during his postgame presser. “I’m just so proud of this team. It was a long game, and that was a very good football team. To have it go like that on our opening game against a well-coached team was great. We are looking forward to our next game [Saturday against No. 3 Oregon]. We can be happy now, but we cannot be satisfied.”
The Cavaliers and Cougars endured a two-hour, nine-minute weather delay and buckets of rain during some portions of the action. So no surprise this turned into a defensive slog.
Indeed, the only scoring drive of more than 45 yards was BYU’s 92-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown march that put Virginia behind 13-12 with 6:26 remaining. But safety Anthony Harris’ interception and heads-up lateral to linebacker Henry Coley, who rumbled 27 yards, gave the Cavaliers prime field position at the Cougars’ 13, from where Kevin Parks raced to the winning touchdown.
“Just don’t fumble it,” London said of his thoughts on the lateral. “It was a great play by Anthony Harris. I don’t know about the lateral play, but we had possession at that time. That was the turning point.”
Said Harris: “In practice our linebackers get interceptions sometimes and the coaches tell us to pitch it back to someone faster so we can go score. I figured we needed a score in that situation and the guy wrapped me up and when I turned around, Henry (Coley) was there with his arms open, so I just trusted he could catch it and pitched it to him softly.”
For a defense that intercepted only four passes in last season’s 4-8 decline, the play was XXL.
“They had two guys in the same area, and I just broke on the ball,” Harris said. “The receiver tipped it and it came to me so I just tried to catch onto it and get some yards. We didn’t have that many interceptions last year, but this year we have been trying to pressure people and working on trying to be in the right spot and today I just ended up in the right spot and the ball came to me.”
Time will tell if BYU is a quality team. The Cougars have reached eight consecutive bowls under Bronco Mendenhall but face a challenging schedule that includes Texas and Notre Dame.
Regardless of how BYU fares, Virginia will be pleased by a defense, coordinated by staff newcomer Jon Tenuta, that yielded only 362 yards (52 on a pass as the clock expired) on 93 snaps, or 3.9 yards per play, and forced 11 punts. Cornerback Maurice Canady, linebacker Daquan Romero and end Eli Harold had 13, 12 and 11 tackles, respectively, and Harold contributed two sacks off the edge.
“It was awesome,” lineman Brent Urban said. “They did the hurry up, but I think we did fine. We were making all the calls out there, and the linebackers were flowing great. It was just overall a great defensive performance. It helped some guys shine like Eli (Harold), who just played awesome.”
New special teams coordinator Larry Lewis’ groups were equally impressive.
Ian Frye’s 53-yard field goal matched the third-longest in program history; Harris blocked a punt, and Alec Vozenilek averaged 41.3 yards on 13 punts, four times pinning BYU inside its own 20.
Winning with 13 punts? According to research guru and former Virginia beat hack Rob Daniels, the Cavaliers are the first Football Bowl Subdivision team this century to win with that many punts.
“It’s great, especially with the schedule we have this year,” Virginia guard Luke Bowanko said. “This win is the biggest thing we could ask for, especially in the fashion we got it. You like to win big, but it’s good to get the confidence that no matter the situation, we have the ability to come through.”
Virginia is 9-7 under London in games decided by a touchdown or less, and with the Oregon contest unlikely to be that competitive – the Ducks are too fast and too good – winning Saturday bordered on essential if the Cavaliers were to generate some early-season goodwill and postseason aspirations.
“It was really good to see the team come together and toughen up for the last drive,” Urban said. It’s a huge win. BYU’s a tough team and it’s great to come out with the win and now we head into Oregon with a lot of confidence so I think it will really help us.”
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