CHARLOTTESVILLE — A Virginia fumble was returned for a touchdown. Two interceptions were returned for other scores. A quarterback, anointed the starter for the entire offseason, was benched. His replacement nearly transformed from a holder to a hero. And that took place during three minutes late in the first half on Saturday.
The Cavaliers football fans who trekked to Scott Stadium for the team’s 2014 season opener vacillated between enraged and enthralled over the course of the afternoon, but they had reason to leave encouraged after their team put a scare into a trendy national title pick.
That No. 7 UCLA ultimately escaped Charlottesville with a 28-20 victory over Virginia likely will be forgotten in the long run. The bizarre events that unfolded on the field, however, will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the direction Virginia heads from here.
Coach Mike London shocked the smallest crowd to attend a home opener at Scott Stadium since 1998 (44,749) when he benched redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert — named a team captain after earning the starting quarterback job out of spring practice — late in the second quarter in favor of redshirt freshman Matt Johns.
Lambert, making his first career start, completed 16 of 23 passes for 112 yards, including his first eight throws of the game. But he had two interceptions that UCLA returned for touchdowns in the first half. The second, which gave UCLA a 21-3 lead and came moments after the Bruins returned a fumble by wide receiver Kyle Dockins for a touchdown, prompted London to turn to Johns.
A lightly recruited prospect who spent last year as the team’s holder on field goals, Johns didn’t waste the opportunity. He fired a 32-yard pass to junior Canaan Severin moments after entering the game. Two snaps later, he found wide receiver Andre Levrone (Good Counsel) for a 29-yard touchdown pass to jolt the crowd to life.
“We weren’t getting the production out of that position, and we made the switch,” London said in a postgame news conference. “It’s about players that perform, and he rose to the occasion.”
Through a team spokesman, Lambert declined to speak with reporters after the game. London, who previously said he wanted to avoid a quarterback competition during the season, had yet to talk with Lambert about the decision in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s events.
Johns said after the game that Lambert had taken “90 percent” of the first-team reps during the preseason.
“Greyson is a young man that understands that as the game was going, decisions are made for the best interests of the team, and that decision that was made was in the best interest of the team,” London added.
The Cavaliers again responded when Johns began the second half under center. With UCLA nursing a 21-10 lead, Johns lofted a beautiful back-shoulder throw to senior Darius Jennings for a 23-yard touchdown to end a 10-play drive midway through the third quarter.
“I was excited for Greyson. It was his first college start. That’s what we all dream about,” said Johns, who completed 13 of his 22 pass attempts for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
“I mean, I was a little surprised, but I couldn’t let my teammates see that, and I wasn’t going to let them see that. So when I was put in the game, I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to go score this and we’re going to win.’ And I felt like I gave us a good opportunity, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Virginia had not allowed three defensive touchdowns in a game since the program began keeping records in 1930. But despite the offensive gaffes, the Cavaliers remained within striking distance thanks to a dominating defense that sacked UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley five times. Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta dialed up blitzes and stunts that “attacked our newness in the line,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said.
The Cavaliers outgained the Bruins 386 yards to 358, but the news wasn’t all good. Defensive end Eli Harold left the locker room on crutches with a boot on his right foot. And Hundley delivered when it mattered most.
The Heisman Trophy candidate stormed through Virginia freshman safety Quin Blanding for a six-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, the Bruins’ only offensive score, and iced the game late with some pinpoint third-down passing.
Johns, meanwhile, finally faltered just when his unlikely appearance teetered on the verge of magical.
Down 28-20 with four minutes remaining, Virginia boo birds emerged when tailback Taquan Mizzell gained just two yards on a third-and-10 draw and Johns misfired on fourth down from UCLA’s 17-yard line. After the game, London revealed the third-down play call had been a pass. Johns admitted he misread the sideline signals on his wristband.
But with another week in which his quarterback rotation will dominate the headlines, London found optimism in the sort of tension-filled afternoon few predicted.
“There’s a lot of people that picked the team we just played to win it all,” London said. “You take something from this and get better.”
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