CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Virginia place kicker Brian Delaney trotted onto the field Saturday night to attempt the first field goal of his college career, at least a handful of his teammates, they admitted after the game, were uncertain about what to expect given the Cavaliers’ recent travails at the position.
The sophomore became the third player this season to get a crack at kicking field goals following uneven showings from A.J. Mejia and Hunter Pearson in previous games and during practice. Adding to the drama was the homecoming crowd at Scott Stadium pushing for an upset of No. 16 Miami.
Delaney’s attempt from 26 yards early in the first quarter sailed through the uprights with such precision that Coach Bronco Mendenhall barely hesitated in sending out the former all-state selection from Westfield High School in Northern Virginia for a 46-yard try on the final snap of the first half.
That attempt was good as well, producing a seven-point lead and a surge in momentum going into the locker room on the way to a 16-13 upset in which the Cavaliers finally may have resolved their kicking conundrum.
The scene afterward included Delaney, who added a third field goal early in the fourth quarter for the decisive points, being mobbed as fans swarmed the field to celebrate the Cavaliers’ first win in 10 games against ranked opponents since 2014.
“Last couple of years it’s been a struggle,” safety Joey Blount said of Virginia’s inconsistent field goal kicking. “It’s been, ‘Is he going to make it?’ and holding on to your seats, but every week is a competition, just as if I’m playing DB, and I get hurt, who’s going to step up next?
“I think Brian Delaney had a wonderful game. He really proved he has the leg. He can kick off. He can punt. He’s a well-rounded kicker, and he was really the MVP of the game.”
Delaney had been in a field goal competition in practice during the last several weeks, with Virginia (4-2, 2-1 ACC) having had an open date over the weekend leading to its nationally televised showdown with the Hurricanes.
The Chantilly native recalled Mendenhall informing him during the middle of last week that he had earned the job, at least temporarily.
“It was definitely some nerves going,” Delaney said, “but everybody did a good job of helping me stay loose, and I think I like to have a little bit of nerves. It keeps me in it.”
Mejia, another Washington-area high school product from Paul VI, entered as the incumbent following a season in which he set the school’s freshman record for points by a place kicker (61), making 8 of 12 field goal attempts, while Delaney served as the kickoff specialist.
But Mejia missed 3 of 4 field goal attempts over the first three games this year, leading to Pearson receiving an opportunity against visiting Louisville on Sept. 22. Pearson, a freshman, made both of his field goal attempts in that game and played against North Carolina State the next week as well.
Still, Mendenhall elected to extend the competition by placing as much stress as possible in practice on each of the placekicking candidates. Delaney separated himself, Mendenhall indicated, by regularly sending kickoffs into the end zone and converting field goal attempts at a higher percentage.
“It came down to Brian Delaney and Hunter matching off, and Brian won the job in practice, and that’s a huge risk, right, because it’s not in a game,” said Mendenhall, whose decision included consulting with special teams coach Ricky Brumfield and graduate assistant Drew Meyer. “I asked them both simply, ‘What do you think?’ And they said, ‘Brian,’ and so I went with that.”
Delaney also made a 29-yard attempt against Miami on fourth and goal with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter for what would have been his fourth field goal, but the Hurricanes' Trajan Bandy was called for roughing the kicker, allowing Virginia instead to run out the clock.
In the locker room following the program’s signature win to date under Mendenhall, Delaney found himself wielding a sledgehammer to “Break the Rock,” a celebration installed this year in which a designated Cavaliers player smashes a piece of stone.
Delaney became the first member of the special teams to do so, receiving the honor just barely over safety Juan Thornhill, who collected two interceptions and Monday was named ACC defensive back of the week.
“To be able to hold the hammer and break the rock as a specialist, it’s a long shot as it is,” Delaney said, “and, I mean, even after the game I didn’t think I’d be doing it. Juan had a great game, and I thought it’d be him doing it. I thought he earned it, but everyone was in there yelling my name.
“Felt great, got out there and broke it.”