A bad day for football?

UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert set the passing school record during Saturday's game against Central Michigan.
Photo Pete Emerson UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert set the passing school record during Saturday’s game against Central Michigan. Photo Pete Emerson

Another 90-degree football day and half the stadium seems to have forgotten there was a game. The hill, one of UVA’s two student sections, is decidedly more green than orange. The bleachers are half-empty. Today is not the day for Virginia to take home a win, no less a 49-35 win over Central Michigan. Today is not a good day for football in Charlottesville.

Regardless of the state of Scott Stadium, the captains flip a coin, the game starts, and the Hoos suffocate defensively, forcing Central Michigan to punt on their first three drives of the game.

The audience is grateful, cheering politely at every defensive stop, but their hearts aren’t in it yet.

How many games have we started well and lost later?

Nevertheless, the stadium sways left and right joyously and rings with the sound of Virginia’s unique fight song when quarterback Kurt Benkert connects to Olamide Zaccheaus for a Cavalier touchdown with 9:42 to go in the first quarter.

A 44-yard rush by Taquan Mizzel leaves the Cavaliers at first and goal. Another touchdown—6:02 left in the first quarter.

The song swells slightly louder this time. The hill seems slightly fuller.

Virginia has played 10 minutes of suffocating defense and scored twice before the Chippewas are even able to muster a first down.

Benkert outdoes himself for the Cavaliers, delivering them out of danger when the Chippewas land a punt on the 1-yard line, gaining 208 yards in the first quarter alone to CMU’s 43, and continuing to move the ball down the field to give the Hoos a chance to score.

Not even a full minute into the second quarter and UVA has its third touchdown of the game—this time courtesy of Keeon Johnson. Alex Furbank, UVA’s walk-on, Division III soccer-playing kicker, misses the extra point. But the fans don’t care. Too much good has happened already.

A sack by Zach Bradshaw to force a punt and suddenly the crowd goes wild. The weight of Virginia’s 21 points is starting to settle, heavy and comfortably, on the shoulders of their fans.

This is happening.

UVA’s next drive down the field and suddenly the fans are confident. “Touchdown!” a man yells, anticipating Virginia’s score while they’ve still got 4 yards to go. This time, Furbank doesn’t miss his extra kick.

Is this the same team? Is this the team that blew a game to Richmond?

Five minutes left in the second quarter and Central Michigan starts to break through. They’re one and 8 for the first time. They’re close. They score. 28-7.

A remarkable 85-yard touchdown later and suddenly it’s 28-14, 2:26 to halftime. The student bleachers look barren, about half-full.

Was it this empty at the start?

Another Virginia drive that leads nowhere—another punt—and then it’s halftime, 28-14 at the half. That’s good, right?

But what about after halftime? Will the same team run out of the tunnel that ran in when it was 90 degrees and not a good day for football?

CMU kicks off to Virginia and the second half begins. The stadium itself is a study in contrasts: half pulsing with color, half on life support.

The student section is virtually deserted. Empty water bottles litter the hill and used napkins and plates blow in the breeze. You wouldn’t know, by the looks of that hill, that the Cavaliers were hours away from winning their first game of the season.

The third quarter turns into a slew of bad plays for the Cavaliers. An unnecessary roughness call kills Virginia’s drive and forces them to punt early, and the Chippewas intercept Kurt Benkert’s pass for a 47-yard touchdown—it’s 28-21.

Is this where the tables start turning? Is this where the football gods turn their backs on Virginia?

Six seconds into the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers are back at square one. Rush throws a 14-yard touchdown pass to CMU’s Corey Willis and it’s 28-28. All tied up now.

The game is a blank slate. A 15-minute-long window of football.

With 9:36 left in the game, everything changes. Benkert is pressured inside Virginia’s 10-yard line. He runs, a throw goes up…and is caught. Eighty-two yards later and the crowd is electrified—brought back to life like Frankenstein’s monster.

Benkert hits his stride again, connecting short passes to push the Cavs down the field.

A collective shout—the loudest yet: 42-28 Virginia.

Just five more minutes. Just five more minutes of good football.

An interception gives Virginia possession and a well-placed ball to “Smoke” Mizzell puts the Cavaliers up 49-28.

Central Michigan scores with 48 seconds left to put seven fewer points between the teams. But it’s already done. It’s already won. First-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall has his first win of the season, yet it seems half the crowd is still waiting for this game to turn into Richmond, or UConn, or any number of losses in the past seasons.

“We’re not immune yet from that being past history and I’m not sure the stadium was…” Mendenhall says. “It felt like there was this cultural ‘Well, we know what this looks like.’ And I felt that.”

Is it still a bad day for football?

 

 

Updated 12:15pm.

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