Saturday’s attendance of 44,749 for the 2014 opener against No. 7 UCLA was anything but. Not with the stadium’s capacity expanded to 61,500 in 2000.
In fact, Saturday’s crowd was the smallest for the Cavaliers’ first home game since that ’98 contest. But it was precisely what school officials expected early in the week when they projected 45,000.
Labor Day weekend, a fan-unfriendly noon kickoff, not to mention a program reeling from a 2-10 season in 2013, were the culprits, the Bruins’ preseason buzz notwithstanding.
What will be interesting to watch is the next two weeks. Virginia created reason for hope in Saturday’s 28-20 setback, and with a 3:30 start for the Sept. 6 home game versus Richmond – the Spiders should bring some folks – and the ACC opener a week later against Louisville, will attendance increase?
Absent a breakout season of seven or more victories, coach Mike London’s job might hinge on the answer. Empty seats and the accompanying loss of revenue have caused many a coach’s demise, and during London’s tenure – he was hired after the 2009 season – average home attendance has been stuck in the mid-40s.
Contrast that to 2005, when the Cavaliers averaged 60,973.
Other nuggets from Saturday:
# Count UCLA coach Jim Mora among those impressed with Virginia backup quarterback Matt Johns, who threw for 154 yards and two touchdowns after replacing Greyson Lambert.
“He was mobile and he ran for a few first downs, got some yardage, hit a couple really nice fade balls where we had good coverage,” Mora said. “They have some big, physical receivers who went up and took it away from us.”
Chief among them was 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman Andre Levrone, whose three catches netted 75 yards and a 29-yard touchdown.
# Middle linebacker Henry Coley led Virginia's suffocating defense with 14 tackles, nine solo, and two sacks. Moreover, Mora said he did an excellent job anticipating snap counts.
“We were toying with each other and the offensive linemen," Coley said. "They made calls, and we would echo them. I walked up and looked at (quarterback Brett Hundley's) eyes. We made eye contact a lot, and I could tell he was getting flustered because he never knew where the pressure was coming from. But he stepped up in the pocket and made the passes his team needed to win.”
# Penalties have been a problem for much of London's time at Virginia, and last season the Cavaliers ranked 12th among 14 ACC teams with 54.9 penalty yards per game. But Saturday, Virginia played as clean an opener as you'll see.
Officials flagged the Cavaliers four times for 20 yards, Virginia's fewest penalty yards since 18 in a 2011 road victory at Miami.
Conversely, UCLA was flagged 12 times for 87 yards, and one unusual personal foul erased an 85-yard punt return for touchdown by Ishmael Adams in the first quarter. Teammate Priest Willis had his helmet come off during the return, and he put it back on and continued to play, which is -- news to me -- against the rules.
# Saturday was the first game since 1986 in which UCLA scored three defensive touchdowns.
# After all the preseason questions, Virginia’s untested offensive line acquitted itself well in pass protection as neither Johns nor Lambert was sacked. Conversely, tailbacks Kevin Parks, Taquan Mizzell and Khalek Shepherd managed only 103 yards on 34 carries, 3.0 yards per attempt.
“I thought the offensive line did a great job,” London said. “This team allowed no sacks to (an opponent) that has a prolific pass rush. … I was particularly pleased with (left tackle) Michael Mooney in his first start and (left guard) Ryan Doull on the inside.”
# No one expected this: Virginia outgained UCLA passing with Johns and Lambert combining for 266 yards, 24 more than Brett Hundley, who completed 20-of-33, without an interception. He was sacked five times.
Plus, the Cavaliers outrushed the Bruins 120-116. Not bad for a program that in 2013 ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense at 33.2 points per game.
“As I said in the locker room, when you can go toe-to-toe and play a good football team like that,” London said, “there’s nothing to hold your head down about.”
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