Keith Payne scores four touchdowns as Virginia football opens the Mike London era with 34-13 win over Richmond

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 12:25 AM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Keith Payne's legs churned slowly, each yard a tougher struggle than the last. But despite the growing number of white Richmond jerseys that surrounded him, Virginia's prodigal son kept pushing the pile forward.

During a drive midway through the third quarter, Payne gained 15 yards when he should have been stopped after eight. On the next play, he gained 13 yards when he should have been brought down after seven. On the play after that, Payne was credited with 15 yards, though he had met first contact long before.

Payne reached the end zone four times Saturday night at Scott Stadium, leading the Cavaliers to a 34-13 win over division I-AA Richmond in Coach Mike London's debut. Though not always pretty, the progress Virginia and its primary workhorse displayed was evident.

"It was like the offense was playing good the whole game," said Payne, who rushed for 114 yards on 16 carries. "The offensive line was playing good the whole game, pushing people off the ball. I feel like that's the way it's supposed to be. It was a good day."

As the players - dressed in their new orange jerseys - walked over to applaud the student section following the final whistle, they had trudged at least one step closer to eradicating the memory of last season's 3-9 debacle.

London, who led Richmond to a division I-AA national title in 2008, became the first Virginia coach in 49 years to win his first game at the helm of the Cavaliers program. His seniors tasted victory in a season opener for the first time in their careers.

"It was really important to come out and at least be representative of a team that's trying to improve," London said. "We're not world-beaters or anything like that, but I think what we're trying to do is just show that . . . we can just come out and take one quarter at a time and play a game that we don't just self-destruct and show that we can score points and show that we can play a little defense. That's the improvement that we're looking for."

Sophomore Perry Jones took a handoff on the first game's first play from scrimmage, broke through the line into the secondary, bounded off a defender and proceeded to advance 38 yards into Richmond territory.

Four plays later, Payne smashed into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown run. On a day designed for new beginnings, the Cavaliers could have had no better representative tally as their first score of the season.

Payne, now a senior, left the team before the start of the 2009 season and returned only after London had replaced former coach Al Groh. Even then, Payne had much work to do - on and off the field - to ingratiate himself with the new staff. He spent most of the summer in what London called his "academic doghouse," and Payne's eligibility remained in question even during the first few days of August's training camp.

But Payne's summer school grades came back favorable, and so the reconstruction of his reputation continued. At 6 feet 3 and 255 pounds, Payne's bruising running style gave the Virginia offense a complementary option to the quickness and agility of Jones, who rushed for 73 yards on nine carries Saturday.

Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, the Virginia offense demonstrated some of that incremental progress of which London often has spoken.

Fifth-year senior Marc Verica threw for more yards in the first half Saturday (194) than he did all of last season (156). Senior wideout Dontrelle Inman caught more passes in the first half (seven) than any Virginia receiver did in a single game in 2009.

Verica completed 24 of 35 passes for a career-high 283 yards and a touchdown. Junior wideout Kris Burd hauled in seven passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

The Cavaliers' defense showed improvement, as well, and proved particularly stingy on third downs. But their susceptibility to big plays enabled Richmond to remain in contention into the second half.

But with a lead in hand, Virginia continued to feed Payne the ball as the second half wore on. Lazor said he had anticipated the ball distribution among his tailbacks to be more even, but "the way the game was going and with what we were doing, it was [Payne's] kind of game."

Afterward, Payne played down his performance, as well as the hurdles he cleared to reach his current status. He needn't say much. His actions are winning over his critics just fine.

"It was a long time coming for him," London said of Payne. "He wasn't always my favorite player. But he's done the things that I've asked him to do. He's gotten himself back into playing shape, and he did a great job out there today."

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