CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Bronco Mendenhall had never started a season with three consecutive losses before coming to Virginia.
When the Cavaliers finally broke through with a 49-35 victory against Central Michigan on Saturday, giving Mendenhall his 100th career victory, the team figured it was time to celebrate.
“They were waiting for me to come in like it was a big deal to them to celebrate for me. I couldn’t wait to celebrate for them,” Mendenhall said. “That’s gratifying when it meant a lot for them to make me feel special and vice versa. It’s one of those things I won’t ever forget. Ever.”
It almost didn’t happen.
Kurt Benkert threw five touchdown passes, the last three after Virginia had squandered all of a 28-0 lead, to awaken a hushed stadium and invigorate a team that appeared to be slipping back into its history of seeing things go from good to bad quickly.
“We’re not immune from that being past history and I’m not sure the stadium was,” Mendenhall said. “It seemed like there was this cultural ‘we know what this feels like,’ and I felt that. We are fighting that as hard as we can but you have to be able to battle through that a few times before that becomes the new normal. Hopefully this will start that.”
Benkert hit Olamide Zaccheaus with a go-ahead 82-yard pass after the Cavaliers defense forced its first punt since the opening quarter. Virginia (1-3) forced another punt, and Benkert hit Albert Reid for a 5-yard touchdown, capping a 73-yard drive. Taquan Mizzell also scored twice for Virginia on runs of 4 and 53 yards.
The Chippewas (3-1), seeking their first 4-0 start since 1985, scored on four of five possessions after going behind 28-0 less than 20 minutes into the game. Cooper Rush passed for 402 yards and two touchdown passes to Corey Willis, including an 85-yarder, and Amari Coleman read a screen pass perfectly and scored on a 47-yard interception return.
“This is a game of execution, and when you drop balls, miss tackles and let people behind you in coverage, that’s when you get beat,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego said. “It doesn’t matter who you are playing or what their record is.”
Mendenhall, in his first year at Virginia, was 99-43 in 11 seasons at BYU before coming east.
Central Michigan: The Chippewas are a confident team, and showed it even when trailing by three touchdowns in a loud stadium. They used timeouts when Virginia had the ball late in the second quarter to stop the clock, and cashed in with two touchdowns in the last 4 1/2 minutes of the half to get within 28-14.
Virginia: Rush picked apart the Virginia secondary, which lost cornerback Juan Thornhill on the first play of the game. The unit also lacks speed and played off the Central Michigan receivers for much of the day, allowing several long completions that produced third-down conversions. Kareem Gibson was a frequent target, but acquitted himself with a fourth-quarter interception to set up an insurance TD.
Reid and Mizzell were getting ready to leave the hotel for the game when they heard a commentator talking Virginia down.
“They disrespected us,” Reid said. “They made us the laughingstock of TV today just because they said this game for Central Michigan was going to be a look-ahead game” because the Chippewas are slated to play rival Western Michigan next Saturday.
“I want to thank everyone for not believing in us, Reid said, “because we proved you wrong.”
Central Michigan: The Chippewas head into Mid-American Conference play at home against Western Michigan.
Virginia: The Cavaliers, losers of 17 in a row on the road, will try to end that skid as they open their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule at Duke.