CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the dust settled on Virginia’s season-opening 43-19 win over Richmond on Saturday afternoon, the Cavaliers had racked up more yardage than they mustered in any game a year ago.
As Virginia left the field, though, the Cavaliers felt they could have accomplished more with the ball.
Facing an overmatched opponent, Virginia gained 545 yards, the second-highest total during Mike London’s tenure as head coach. Junior quarterback Michael Rocco led the charge, completing 25 of his 37 passes for 311 yards — one shy of his career high — and one touchdown before giving way to redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims with the game decided in the fourth quarter.
But the Cavaliers also were uneven at times, particularly in short-yardage situations with Richmond bringing extra defenders to stop the run. Though running backs Perry Jones and Kevin Parks combined for three touchdowns, they gained just 103 yards on 28 combined carries. Sophomore tailback Clifton Richardson did not play because of a lower leg injury.
“We expect greatness out of our offense,” said Rocco, who was going up against his uncle, first-year Richmond Coach Danny Rocco. “To put 43 points on the board and really have the sense that we can do more than that, I think that’s a good thing.”
Virginia’s day couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The Cavaliers’ untested defense swarmed to the ball, forcing consecutive three-and-outs and allowing just one Richmond first down in the first quarter.
The offense, meanwhile, methodically drove down the field on its first possession of the year. Parks capped off the 10-play, 48-yard drive with a one-yard run that gave Virginia an early 7-0 lead.
Richmond made matters worse for itself when senior Chase Boyer’s snap sailed over punter Nick Hicks’s head and rolled to the end zone for a Cavaliers safety.
Sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings then sent a jolt through Scott Stadium, racing down the sideline on a 51-yard touchdown catch that put Virginia up 16-0 with more than eight minutes left in the first quarter.
Jennings finished the game with a career-high five catches for 84 yards. Junior Tim Smith added six receptions for 96 yards.
The Cavaliers could’ve blown open the game for good, and seemed on the cusp of doing so when sophomore tight end Jake McGee made a one-handed highlight-reel grab for his first career catch midway through the second quarter. But the drive stalled at the 6-yard line.
Instead, Virginia took a 22-0 lead when it settled for two-second quarter field goals by place kicker Drew Jarrett, including a 45-yarder on his first career attempt.
“It looked like we were doing a pretty good job of moving the ball and then kind of got caught up in a couple lulls there,” London said. “We play really good teams. Not taking anything away from Richmond, but we’ve got to be able to execute. We have to be able to block when we’re supposed to.”
It was also an up-and-down afternoon for Virginia’s defense, which was breaking in three new starters in the defensive backfield.
After a strong start, the unit looked ordinary at times, allowing Richmond touchdown drives of 88 and 75 yards. The Spiders gained 238 of their 266 yards through the air, and even got a touchdown throw from former Virginia quarterback Michael Strauss.
“They’re gonna have to play their way into being experienced players,” London said about his secondary. “There’s no other magic potion for it.”
For one day, though, that potential weakness was a moot point.
Rocco led two touchdown drives after halftime, and Sims made sure his Virginia debut was a positive one. The Alabama transfer completed 5 of 6 throws for 50 yards on a 14-play, 87-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
Not that it mattered to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
“I think we’re gonna mature as an offense from this game,” he said. “We’re happy with the number of points, [but] I have a feeling when I look at the film, I’ll find plenty of things to coach.”