CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Even Matt Johns was surprised to hear his number called before halftime.
It came right after Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert threw his second interception that was returned for a touchdown, putting the Cavaliers in a 21-3 deficit against seventh-ranked UCLA.
“I was surprised, but I couldn’t let my teammates see that and I wasn’t going to let them see that,” Johnson said after a relief effort that left his teammates gushing.
UCLA ultimately won 28-20, but Johns’ effort raised a question about whether there may be a quarterback switch in the works at Virginia.
“He was phenomenal,” linebacker Henry Coley said after Johnson wrapped up a 13-for-22, 154-yard, two-touchdown day in his first real action. “He came in, he stepped up. He wore his big boy pants.”
The accolades sounded a lot like what players and coaches said about Lambert before the season. That was before a tipped pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, a completed third-down pass was fumbled away, leading to a 75-yard fumble return touchdown. Then, he didn’t see a defender who thought he knew what was coming, guessed right and intercepted another pass for a third defensive TD.
“They have a little bit of a tendency that Eric was clued into,” Bruins coach Jim Mora Jr. said of linebacker Eric Kendricks, who waltzed 37 yards for the score. Virginia said a check into its history showed it was the first time since at least 1930 that the Cavaliers gave up three defensive scores.
As it turned out, that was what it took, along with one scoring drive led by heralded Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley for a critical touchdown in the third quarter.
Hundley, widely regarded as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, was harassed all day by Virginia’s pressure defense, and made the biggest play of the day for UCLA with his feet. It came on a 6-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter when he overpowered safety Quin Blanding on a 6-yard TD run.
The Cavaliers, 21-point underdogs, had a first down at the Bruins 19 late in the game, but three consecutive running plays netted just two yards and irritated the fans, and linebacker Myles Jack disrupted Matt Johns’ fourth-and-8 pass to Doni Dowling and it fell to the ground.
Lambert declined to speak with reporters after the game, and Johns declined to speculate on whi will start next week when Richmond, featuring two former Virginia quarterbacks, come to Scott Stadium.
“No, that’s up to the coaches,” he said. “They’ll decide that and we’ll leave it to them.”
Johns led the Cavaliers to a touchdown on his first series, and played the entire second half.
UCLA led just 21-17 and had not scored an offensive touchdown when it took over at its 34 late in the third quarter, but that’s when Hundley finally put a drive together against the Virginia defense. The Cavaliers sacked him five times and held him to 39 rushing yards, but couldn’t shut him out.
Hundley completed passes of 15 yards to Eldridge Massington and 25 yards to Thomas Duarte on the 66-yard march, and capped it with a 6-yard run up the middle, bulling over safety Blanding for the TD.
That made it 28-17, and all the momentum brought by Johns’ play dissipated.
Johns put together his second touchdown march on Virginia’s second drive of the second half. He kept it alive by hitting Dowling for 11 yards on a third-and-6, saw Kevin Parks run for 13 on a fourth-and-2 to the Bruins’ 13, then hit Darius Jennings for 23 yards and the touchdown to make it 21- 17.
The drive brought life back into the crowd of 44,479, the smallest for the Virginia opener since 1998. But after the teams exchanged possession, Hundley put together the drive that proved the difference.
Lambert and the Cavaliers’ defense were heralded as reasons for optimism, but Lambert didn’t even make it to halftime. He had one passed tipped at the line and intercepted by Ishmael Adams, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown, and another one that Eric Kendricks picked off and took 37 yards for a score. In between, Lambert hit Kyle Dockins for what appeared to be a third-down conversion in Bruins territory, but Dockins fumbled into the hands of Randall Goforth, who returned it 75 yards for a touchdown.
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