Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Central Michigan got up off the canvas and got back in the battle.
Unfortunately, the Chippewas couldn’t answer a second time.
CMU clawed back from a four-touchdown deficit to tie the game before succumbing to Virginia, 49-35, in a non-conference game before 35, 211 at the Cavaliers’ Scott Stadium on Saturday.
It was the first loss for CMU (3-1) and the first win for Virginia (1-3). The Chippewas open Mid-American Conference play next Saturday (7 p.m.) at home against archrival Western Michigan (4-0). The Broncos topped previously unbeaten Georgia Southern, 49-31, on Saturday night.
“We’re obviously very disappointed with the outcome of the game,” CMU coach John Bonamego said. “I didn’t feel like we played very well at all in any phase.
“Hats off to Virginia’s staff and players. They played a very hard fought game, and we just made too many mistakes to win – dropped passes, penalties, missed tackles, giving up big plays. It was very uncharacteristic of how we played in the first three games and we have to rebound quickly with our conference schedule starting this Saturday at home. I believe that we will do that.”
Saturday’s game featured more than 1,000 yards in total offense, 47 first downs, and plenty of momentum-shifting big plays.
The game-changer came after CMU, down 28-0 early in the second quarter, forged a 28-28 tie on Cooper Rush’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Corey Willis on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Five minutes later, Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert connected with Olamide Zaccheaus for an 82-yard touchdown pass play to put the Cavaliers in front for good, 35-28.
Zaccheaus got behind CMU cornerback Sean Bunting down the sideline, and Benkert hit him with a strike near midfield. Zaccheaus did the rest.
“Sean Bunting, who is a freshman, dropped coverage,” Bonamego said. “I don’t know if he saw the quarterback scramble out of the pocket, but he dropped coverage and let the receiver get behind him, which you can’t do.”
Benkert threw for 421 yards and five touchdowns, while CMU quarterback Cooper Rush completed 25 of 45 pass attempts for 402 yards and two scores.
Willis caught six passes for a career-high 145 yards and two scores, the first of which was an 85-yarder that pulled CMU to 28-14 with under five minutes to play in the half. Willis’ six catches and two TD receptions matched his career high.
CMU cornerback Amari Coleman returned an interception 47 yards midway through the third quarter to cut the Chippewas’ deficit to 28-21.
“As a team we always keep fighting,” Rush said. “We can be in any game we want if we just play it right. You just have to stay the course and start executing better. We had a couple plays to get us going.
“But we learn, we have to stop starting (games slowly) like that — it’s not going to cut it.”
Jonathan Ward and Jahray Hayes added rushing TDs for the Chippewas, who finished with 97 yards on the ground.
“The vibe was, well we have been down plenty of times in games and have come back and won,” Coleman said. “But, this time it just didn’t happen. Defensively we didn’t come out and we didn’t throw the first punch. They threw it and threw it fast.”