NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First, an 18-yard touchdown run on Virginia’s first offensive snap.
Then, an 86-yard catch and run. A 75-yard touchdown run between the tackles followed.
In Virginia’s first six plays Saturday, it put up 187 yards and 21 points. Ohio’s offense had a touchdown of its own between its defensive breakdowns, but the first quarter was largely one to forget for the Bobcats.
Virginia threw offensive punches from its first snap, set the tone and put Ohio in a hole it couldn’t recover from in the Bobcats’ 45-31 loss to Virginia at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“They just came out and punched us really hard in the mouth,” team captain and safety Kylan Nelson said.
Big plays weren’t limited to the first quarter. And Ohio had potentially game-changing plays of its own to hang its hat on, but those came far too late.
The plays that mattered were made by Virginia’s offense. Of the six Virginia touchdowns, three were at least 75 yards. All of them happened when Ohio was in striking distance.
But when it seemed like Ohio could finally pull within reach of Virginia, the Cavaliers had a big play to respond. After Ohio had cut the lead to just 10 in the fourth quarter, Olamide Zaccheaus gained 77 of his career-high 247 receiving yards — a single-game Virginia record — on a short curl route-turned-touchdown. Multiple Bobcats had an opportunity to bring Zaccheaus down as he caught it, but he slipped away — and so did Ohio’s chance at a comeback.
That play, which gave the Cavaliers a 17-point advantage, resembled a microcosm of Ohio’s defensive effort.
“It’s frustrating to be playing the ball that we’re playing right now,” coach Frank Solich said. “I think the coaches have to do a better job. I think some players have got to do a better job.”
This game was supposed to have a different feel to it than the Howard game from two weeks ago. In that game, Howard’s offense torched the Bobcats for 645 total yards. But that was without two starters in the secondary: Jamal Hudson and captain Javon Hagan.
Both played against Virginia. The Bobcats were coming off an early season bye week. Ohio’s defense was supposed to heal its wounds and sure up its pass defense. But Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins — normally more of a threat with his legs than his arm — had 379 yards passing. Of course, nearly half of them came on the two big plays of 86 and 77 yards to Zaccheaus. The Bobcats kept Perkins in the pocket, and they didn’t let him run loose like he’s used to.
It seemed like the Bobcats would finally show signs of competence defensively in the second quarter. After digging themselves a 28-point hole, Ohio’s Chukwudi Chuckwu delivered a spark, stripping Perkins as he dropped back to pass. Ohio recovered and scored on the next play.
Ohio then recovered a squib kick that deflected off a Virginia defender. Two plays later, Ohio scored, cutting the lead to 14.
On the ensuing Cavaliers drive, the Bobcats’ defense bent, but didn’t break, holding Virginia to a field goal. The momentum stuck with Ohio’s defense in the third quarter, too. The Cavaliers had two possessions in the third quarter. Both resulted in punts. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers missed a field goal. Ohio’s defense seemed to find a way to inch back into the game.
“I think we hashed it out pretty well,” Nelson said. “By the end of the first quarter, we were able to figure out what we had to, made some adjustments.”
Down 10 with six minutes to play, Ohio had Virginia pinned at its own 17. Two plays later, Zaccheaus was in the end zone, and Ohio’s chance of winning had disappeared.
That’s the story of Ohio’s season so far. And just two games down, opportunity for improvement remains. But for now, Ohio’s defense has a big play problem.
“We’ve got issues in some areas,” Solich said. “We’ve got to find a way to get better.”