Benkert sharp as Virginia downs William & Mary 28-10
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Kurt Benkert said all along that winning was the only acceptable outcome for Virginia in its season-opener against William & Mary.
Benkert was a big part of making it happen Saturday with three touchdown passes in the Cavaliers' 28-10 victory.
"One-and-oh is better than oh-and-one," Benkert said, comparing the victory to last season's 37-20 loss in the opener against Richmond, also a member of the FCS. "That's where we wanted to start. We didn't care what the game looked like. We wanted to come out with a W."
Jordan Ellis ran for 80 yards and a touchdown and scored the clincher on Benkert's final pass with 55 seconds remaining. It came minutes after Chris Peace intercepted a ricochet, setting the Cavaliers up at the Tribe's 25 and setting the stage for the final drive.
"Huge," center Jake Fieler said of the pick, adding "there was no point where I felt like 'Oh gosh. They might be coming back into this.'"
The Cavaliers gave coach Bronco Mendenhall and their fans a much more encouraging start than a season ago, when Virginia was dominated 37-20 by Richmond on its way to a 2-10 record, and Mendenhall demonstrated an increased faith in his team's closing ability.
"Once we got the lead, we were taking more chances, being a bit more radical on what we were doing (defensively)," he said.
Benkert hit Andre Levrone for a 34-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-9 play with 1:31 left in the first half, giving Virginia a 14-0 lead. He later hit Olamide Zaccheaus for a 17-yard score, and found Ellis from a yard out on a fourth-and-goal play.
He was 27 for 39 for 262 yards, and the Cavaliers did not have a turnover for the first time in 43 games (Oct. 12, 2013 at Maryland).
The Tribe, who spoiled Virginia's opener in 2009 with a 26-14 victory, trailed 21-3 before Tommy McKee scored on a 2-yard run with 6:52 to play. Virginia followed with a three-and-out, but the Tribe juggled the ensuing punt, finally recovering after a scramble at its 4.
The interception by Peace came three plays later.
McKee completed 6 of 12 passes for 63 yards. He also led the Tribe in rushing with 89 yards on 15 attempts.
"I do not know if it was really pretty, but I thought it was pretty gutty," William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said of the junior's play. The quarterback was involved in a three-way battle for the job into the final week and only came out of the game briefly because he was cramping.
William & Mary: The Tribe is young, but will be far more competitive as it returns to FCS-level competition. McKee, the winner of a three-way QB battle, demonstrated much grit and will find receivers easier going forward and won't have to do his other job — punting — as often.
Virginia: The Cavaliers did a good job of rewarding the excitement of a crowd that fell short of 40,000 on a cold and rainy day, but it came against a young defense. They will need to protect Benkert better and continue looking for a kicker. After freshman A.J. Meija missed badly on a 42-yard attempt, Mendenhall and his staff four times went for it on fourth down. The Cavaliers made only five field goals all last season.
"It looks like we have some snap and hold issues," Mendenhall said.
MORE ON FOURTH DOWN
Benkert was 2 for 4 on fourth-down throws, and also missed a wide open Levrone in the end zone on fourth-and-7 from the Tribe's 29.
"I love it," he said of having the ball on do-or-die plays. "I think the coaches trust me, they know I'm going to take care of the football and I'm going to put us in the best situation."
William & Mary: The Tribe returns to FCS-level competition as it visits Norfolk State on Saturday.
Virginia: The Cavaliers play the second of three consecutive home games when Indiana visits on Saturday.
More AP college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Hank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hankkurzjr