CHARLOTTE — Given the chance to end a long postseason drought and mark another step forward in its rebuilding under Coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Virginia football team delivered a more emphatic statement Saturday.
The Cavaliers throttled South Carolina, 28-0, in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium, swarming on defense and controlling the clock with on an offense led by wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus’s record-setting performance.
It wasn’t just Virginia’s first bowl victory since 2005 but the first postseason shutout in program history. It was also the first time the Cavaliers held a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent scoreless since 2008, when it beat Maryland, 31-0.
“A bowl victory is significant, especially with that amount of time. That’s a huge test, and our team handled it really well,” said Mendenhall, who directed Virginia (8-5) to its most victories since 2011. “And when you put it in contrast with a year ago, it can’t be more striking in this setting, in this one-game setting.”
Last season, Mendenhall’s second in Charlottesville, ended with the Cavaliers’ first bowl appearance in six years — and a humiliating 49-7 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl.
“That’s a giant step forward,” Mendenhall said Saturday.
Zaccheaus led the way with 12 receptions, the most by a Virginia player in a bowl game, for 100 yards and three touchdowns and was selected the game’s most outstanding player. The speedy senior finished his college career with 250 receptions for 2,753 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins, meanwhile, completed 22 of 31 pass attempts for 208 yards and ran for 81 yards on 15 carries, showing little if any discomfort from a sore left ankle. The junior transfer hurt his ankle Nov. 17 during an overtime loss to Georgia Tech.
The three touchdowns for Perkins match a Virginia bowl record shared by Aaron Brooks.
“Honestly, I wish I had another year because I know next year is going to be better than this year,” Zaccheaus said. “I’m just happy I was able to leave this place better than I found it.”
Junior linebacker Jordan Mack sparked the defense with a team-high eight tackles, moving Virginia into select company, joining Clemson as the only current ACC schools to shut out an SEC opponent in a bowl game.
Safety Juan Thornhill added six tackles, one interception and one pass breakup in helping limit South Carolina to 261 total yards, including just 43 rushing.
“Honestly, I came into this game prepared for a shutout,” Thornhill said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about this whole week, is how many points can we take away from them, because we know they average 32 points a game, and our goal was to keep them [far] away from that 32 points.”
South Carolina (7-6) went scoreless for the first time since 2006 in large part because of third-down futility. It converted just 2 of 13, contributing to the Cavaliers’ staggering 42:35 time of possession during which they ran 79 plays, 20 more than the Gamecocks.
The dearth of offense was all the more stunning given South Carolina had scored at least 27 points in each of its last six games, including a 56-35 loss to second-ranked Clemson. The Gamecocks also beat Mississippi, 48-44, on Nov. 3 and lost to then-No. 15 Florida, 35-31, on Nov. 10.
The third touchdown Saturday, which all but assured Virginia’s third triumph in Belk Bowl history, unfolded when Zaccheaus caught a 10-yard pass from Perkins with 7:14 remaining in the third quarter.
The Gamecocks twice moved deep into Virginia territory in the second half, the first time turning the ball over on downs and the second yielding Thornhill’s interception, which the senior returned 54 yards to the South Carolina 21-yard line.
“The defensive players have been working really, really hard,” Mendenhall said. “They knew what challenge was ahead of them for this game. They watched South Carolina versus Clemson. They knew what was capable, and they knew we weren’t going to win unless they played well.”
The first half featured a pair of lengthy touchdown drives for Virginia, which controlled the line of scrimmage, allowing senior tailback Jordan Ellis to run between the tackles.
Ellis’s nine-yard run up the middle with 42 seconds left in the second quarter delivered the Cavaliers a 14-0 lead. It was the 10th rushing touchdown this season for Ellis, capping a 14-play drive covering 90 yards and using 8:10 that included two third-down conversions.
The Cavaliers’ first touchdown came on Perkins’s six-yard pass to Zaccheaus on fourth and two. Zaccheaus found himself wide open in the back of the end zone, a busted coverage according to South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp, for the uncontested catch with 3:30 left in the first quarter.
“I believe Coach said we were just getting started,” said Cavaliers standout cornerback Bryce Hall, who announced he would be coming back for his senior year despite NFL interest. “That’s how we feel. We’re just getting started.
“We kind of took a lot of people by surprise, but we knew how hard we’ve been working, and we knew what we were capable of, and that’s all that really mattered to us.”