CHARLOTTESVILLE—Heading into Saturday’s opener, many wondered if Brett Hundley would be too much for Virginia’ defense to handle, but it was UCLA’s defense that proved to be the difference. The Bruins scored three defensive touchdowns in the second quarter to help lead a sluggish UCLA team to a 28-20 win over the Cavaliers Saturday.
UCLA came into the game as a top ten team, but looked anything but for much of the game. At the end of the first half, UCLA’s offense had only 112 yards and no points.
How bad were they? UCLA's offense finished he game with only seven points, while Virginia scored 20.
Hundley struggled as well, as the offense went pass heavy to start with 10 passes in their first 12 plays. Apart from a 48-yard pass on the very first play from scrimmage, however, Hundley could not solve the UVa defense until late in the third quarter.
Not what you would expect from a Heisman hopeful.
"We sacked him a few times and were able to get him in the pocket," said senior safety Anthony Harris. "He was able to stay calm and corral his team."
Luckily for the Bruins, the defense came to play and scored three touchdowns in the second quarter to put UCLA up big.
Hundley was outplayed for much of the game by his Virginia counterpart, Matt Johns. No, it was not Greyson Lambert who ultimately took control of the offense on Saturday, but Johns.
After a shaky 2013 season, head coach Mike London demoted starting quarterback David Watford in favor of Lambert. Lambert came in and completed his first eight passes, but for only 42 yards as all of them were short screens or check downs . In fact, Lambert did not attempt a pass over 10 yards until three minutes into the second quarter.
When he attempted to air the ball out, the results were not good as he threw two interceptions. He finished with only the game with 112 passing yards.
Perhaps Lambert was not confident with deeper throws, or perhaps he was the victim of a conservative game plan. Either way, the preseason hype around Watford’s replacement dissolved after the second interception.
“One of the things you can do is keep the clock running with some short passes,” said London. “The game plan was put in place to keep us in the game.”
“Coach [Steve] Fairchild called a great game all four quarters,” said Johns. “We had some turnovers, but that was beating ourselves up. That wasn’t the game plan.”
After the second interception, London chose to sit Lambert in favor of Johns. It paid off.
“I was a little surprised, but I couldn’t let my teammates see that and I wasn’t going to let them see that,” said Johns. “So what I was put in the game, I said ‘Guys we’re going to score this series and we’re going to win.’”
Johns made good on the first promise as he came in with 1:20 left to play in the second quarter and immediately provided a spark to the team and the crowd. His first pass was a 32-yard completion to Canaan Severin and then he showed his mobility with a nine-yard scamper the very next play. He capped off the drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Andre Levrone, Virginia’s first touchdown of the game.
London gave no indication after the game on if Johns would start next week, saying only that he would “evaluate” both players.
But, despite Johns’ efforts, Virginia’s fate was sealed by a disastrous second quarter.
Virginia held UCLA scoreless in the first, but UCLA defensive tackle Owamagbe Odighizuwa managed to get his hand on the ball and deflect the pass up. It fell into the waiting arms of Ishmael Adams who returned it 20 yards for the touchdown.
The Cavaliers responded with a field goal, but UCLA struck again as Randall Goforth returned a fumble 75 yards for their second touchdown. Just 1:35 later, Lambert felt the pressure in his face and attempted another check down pass, but linebacker Eric Kendricks was waiting and he took it 37 yards for the Bruins third touchdown. It is the first time since 1986 that UCLA has scored three defensive touchdowns in a game.
Despite the impressive efforts of the defense, Virginia found themselves down 21-3. UCLA's defense would finish the game with more points than either offense.
Last season, the Cavs would have collapsed, but credit this team, they kept fighting. Johns led the Cavs to two touchdowns, one before the half, the other on a 10 play, 59-yard drive in the third to pull the Cavs within four.
“We do not give up no matter the circumstance and we keep fighting on there on the field,” said defensive end Max Valles. “It’s a step forward today from last season.”
Then about midway through the third quarter, Hundley woke up.
Though he had not looked like a Heisman-caliber quarterback for much of the game, Hundley tried to make up for it with a strong second half. If he couldn’t get it done with his arm, he would do it with his legs.
“I pride myself in understanding that if we need a spark I can run the ball a little and be that spark,” said Hundley. "The lanes are there, and when they are, I’ll just take them.”
Virginia had no answer for UCLA’s read option as Hundley gashed the defense time and again. Hundley scored what would prove to be the game-deciding touchdown in the third off of a six-yard run.
“He had to put the team on his back and try to beat us with his arm and legs,” said senior linebacker Henry Coley. “He is a dual threat quarterback that you always have to keep eyes on.”
But credit the defense. Few thought they would be up to the task of bottling up Hundley, but they did just that for much of the game, recording five sacks and holding the Bruins offense to only seven points.
“They were a solid defense,” said UCLA center Scott Quessenberry, “strong, high motors, they didn’t quit. I feel like they really wanted this game, and so did we. They gave us a hell of a game.”
Despite the loss, London said he was "extremely proud" of his team' performance.
“UCLA is a team that’s picked to win the Pac-12, be in the four-team playoff, and some have picked them to win it all. As I said in the locker room, when you can go toe-to-toe and play a good football team like that, there’s nothing to hold your head down about.”
The question now for Virginia is whether they can build off of this performance. Last season, Virginia pulled off an upset in its season opener against BYU, holding the Cougars to only 16 points. That success did not carry over for rest of the season, however, as the Cavs stumbled to a 2-10 record. This team will be hoping for a much different result down the road.
Virginia will have a much more manageable task next week as they take on London’s former team, FCS Richmond. Kickoff is at 3:30.
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