Western Michigan 19
It didn't take long for the No. 25 Virginia Cavaliers to fill their fans with hope. On the first play from scrimmage of Saturday night's season opener, Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans connected with wide receiver Ottowa Anderson for a 57-yard gain -- the longest reception of Anderson's career -- that led to a touchdown three plays later.
Yet as visions of an ACC championship and a BCS berth started dancing in their heads, the Virginia faithful were brought quickly back to reality by their team's sloppiness. The Cavaliers overcame three turnovers to ultimately prevail, 31-19, over Western Michigan and win their season opener for the third consecutive year, but not before giving the crowd of 61,244 some anxious moments.
But if the fans were apprehensive, Virginia Coach Al Groh was not. He dismissed any talk that the Cavaliers didn't perform up to expectations, chastising reporters who expressed concerns about the team's play.
"If you're not happy with this win, you've got a problem with your ego," Groh said. "I'm real happy. We won. That's a pretty good feeling. Now we've got one more win than Oklahoma's got. That feels pretty good, too. It wasn't perfect. Nope, it wasn't perfect. We'll do some things better. We better do some things better. I'm real happy about it. I'm not going to let my ego get in the way."
Virginia's uneven performance was not unexpected. The Cavaliers replaced six starters on both offense and defense, including seven players that were taken in last spring's NFL draft. With several new faces playing unaccustomed roles, there was bound to be miscues such as the two defensive penalties -- holding and roughing the passer -- that helped along Western Michigan's first scoring drive, or the four fumbles, one of which was a turnover.
Yet the blame for the three Virginia turnovers can't be laid on the newcomers alone. Hagans, in his second season as the starting quarterback, threw two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown -- the only time Western Michigan crossed the goal line. The remainder of the Broncos' points came from field goals.
Jason Snelling, an experienced fullback, brought the Cavaliers to the Western Michigan 22-yard line before he fumbled away the ball, squandering a Cavaliers scoring opportunity.
Tailback Michael Johnson fumbled twice, but both fumbles were recovered by his teammates. Johnson was thrust into the role of Virginia's primary ballcarrier after Wali Lundy injured his left ankle during the Cavaliers' second series. Lundy came off the field limping after a 28-yard run and did not return. Johnson, who scored on a seven-yard touchdown run to put Virginia ahead 24-3, ran for 38 yards on seven carries before giving way to freshman Cedric Peerman.
Virginia wasn't the only team having trouble holding onto the ball. The Cavaliers capitalized on two Western Michigan turnovers. Clint Sintim sacked quarterback Robbie Haas, jarring loose the ball. Kwakou Robinson picked it up on the Broncos 41-yard line. Two plays later, Hagans ran into the end zone untouched. On the second play of Western Michigan's next drive, Nate Lyles intercepted a pass intended for Greg Jennings. Virginia turned that interception into a field goal.
While the departure of several talented players led to an inconsistent performance, it also provided an opportunity for new stars to emerge. Anderson, a 6-foot, 186-pound senior who left school for academic reasons last season and spent the year working in a furniture factory in Tidewater, Va., was the first to assert himself.
Anderson made an impression before most fans had settled into their seats. Peerman had given the Cavaliers good field position by returning the kickoff 35 yards to the Virginia 37-yard line. Western Michigan, obviously expecting a run, had stacked the line of scrimmage. Hagans faked a handoff to Lundy before perfectly lofting a pass to Anderson, who ran a post pattern up the middle. Anderson was brought down at the Broncos 6-yard line. He finished with three catches for 109 yards.
"I was so excited," Anderson said. "I just wanted to keep it going I hadn't been there in years. That was a great moment for me."
After the coaching staff became frustrated when neither Johnson nor Snelling could hold onto the ball, Peerman was handed the responsibility of carrying it. He finished with 70 yards on 16 carries, all in the second half. He rushed 11 times during the Cavaliers' scoring drive that began the fourth quarter, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown run.
"Clearly, it look like he fits into the mix," Groh said.