A big interception return led to a big celebration on the Virginia sideline. Cavalier players — and a few UVa assistant coaches — were bouncing around like the clock had struck midnight at a New Year’s party.
Over 14 minutes remained in the Belk Bowl, but the end result was clear. South Carolina’s opponent, the one that entered as a 4.5-point underdog, was going to win handily. The Cavaliers were issued a sideline warning for how they reacted to Juan Thornhill’s 54-yard sprint after he picked off Jake Bentley, but no one in orange and blue seemed to mind.
UVa’s preparation paid off Saturday in a shocking 28-0 blanking of the Gamecocks at Bank of America Stadium.
“We weren’t here for a vacation,” said Cavalier receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, the Belk Bowl MVP after 12 catches, 100 yards and three touchdowns.
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The bowl win was Virginia’s first since 2005. It came a year after a 42-point loss to Navy in the Military Bowl.
Can a player sense when one team wants to win a game more than another? Was that the case Saturday?
“You definitely can,” said Cavalier linebacker Jordan Mack. “When it comes to bowl games, it’s all about who prepares the best and who can eliminate those distractions from the bowl games and who plays like they want to be here.
“You can usually tell just by how hard the players are playing — just the body language, the mindset, different things like that.”
South Carolina came to Saturday’s game without several key players, including All-SEC receiver and kick returner Deebo Samuel. It got in a 14-0 halftime hole and never mounted much of a threat in the second half en route to being shut out for the first time in 12 years.
Virginia, which entered 24th in the nation in total defense, held the Gamecocks to 179 yards below its average. Because of injuries, the Cavaliers only dressed four defensive linemen.
Was there an obvious lack of want-to on the Carolina side?
“I couldn’t really sense it,” Mack said. “I just went out there and played every play. Obviously when they became very one-dimensional, that’s when you could kind of sense, ‘OK, we got them.’”
Mack, who recorded a team-best eight tackles and a sack, is from Georgia. UVa safety Joey Blount, who forced a fumble, is also a native of SEC territory.
Conference pride was definitely a factor on one side of Saturday’s matchup.
“They take the route of just being the best in the nation,” Atlanta’s Blount said of the SEC. “And I feel like this win right now just kind of shows what kind of program the ACC is building here. These teams are not to be looked over.
“I’m happy that we could perform for the ACC. Obviously it was great for our coach, our team and our seniors, but for the ACC as a whole.”
This was the 13th bowl game in the career of Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. BYU’s leader for 11 years, he had never faced an SEC team in the postseason.
To help with the challenge, prep work was constant — even on Christmas day.
“You can never tell where the opponent is – mindset-wise or physically, nor does it do any good,” Mendenhall said. “There are indicators of your own team along the way. And one of the best indicators is when I announced that we’d be practicing on Christmas. … We got on buses to come here and it was late enough and really there wasn’t going to be much to do other than sleep.
“Yeah, it was a test. And they looked at me with this nod, and I explained to them the best gift I could give them was to have them work harder than their opponent.”