CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Bronco Mendenhall isn't big on fiery halftime speeches. So, with his team trailing visiting Old Dominion by 10 points at halftime, the Virginia coach's message to his players was simple.

"All I said was, 'Now that that's over, we'll start playing,'" Mendenhall said.

His defense certainly did.

Linebacker Zane Zandier returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown, part of a dominant defensive second half, as the 21st-ranked Cavaliers rallied past the Monarchs 28-17 on Saturday night to remain undefeated.

Old Dominion's failed fourth-down try in its own territory set up Virginia's go-ahead score, a 7-yard touchdown run by Wayne Taulapapa with 10:16 to go for a 21-17 edge.

After the game, Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder defended the decision.

"We came in here to win and that is how we tried to play today," he said.

The Cavaliers (4-0) are off to their best start since opening 5-0 in 2004. The Monarchs (1-2) have lost two in a row, both to in-state ACC opponents. They lost to Virginia Tech two weekends ago, a year after stunning the Hokies in Norfolk.

Linebacker Charles Snowden finished with a game-high 15 tackles, including two of the five sacks on Old Dominion quarterback Stone Smartt. He echoed Mendenhall's sentiment that the halftime mood was more about getting reset than getting motivated.

"Just kind of gathering ourselves in the locker room, settling down, taking a breather," Snowden said. "Wasn't a lot of 'rah-rah.' It was just, 'go out and play the way we know we can play.'"

Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins didn't have his best statistical game, but still ran for one score and threw for another. He left the game for a play on Virginia's final possession after taking a big hit from Old Dominion defensive end Keion White while trying to pick up an errant snap.

White had a big game, finishing with six tackles, including 3 1/2 for losses, and blocked a potential game-tying field goal in the second half.

"I was just trying to fight. Our team needed it," White said. "I was just trying to fight but obviously wasn't good enough."

Fueled by Virginia penalties and defensive miscues, Old Dominion jumped out to a 17-0 lead with 10:32 left in the first half. The Monarchs got an 8-yard scoring run from Smartt, and a 47-yard touchdown pass from Smartt to Matt Geiger against a busted coverage in the secondary by the Cavaliers.

"Old Dominion showed up ready and hungry and eager to play," Mendenhall said. "It took us, our program, my program, much longer to reach that same state."

A 57-yard kickoff return by Joe Reed gave Virginia the ball at the Old Dominion 33-yard line, the Cavaliers finally got going in the second quarter. It took one of Perkins' jaw-dropping runs — a 10-yard scramble that saw him dodge a rusher, outrun another defender and sidestep a third — to finally get Virginia on the board, pulling to 17-7 with 6:57 left in the first half.

The Cavaliers got their second touchdown when Smartt, under pressure, tried to force a short throw that was intercepted by Zandier and run back 22 yards for a touchdown with 10 minutes to go in the third.

"That sparks the whole team," Reed said.

THE TAKEAWAY

Old Dominion: Smartt's running ability will help keep Old Dominion in a lot of games. He's a dynamic playmaker who can be used on designed runs or to make something out of nothing when plays break down. But what really helped the Monarchs get off to a fast start in this one was Smartt's development throwing the ball. He hit on his first six throws, threw his first touchdown pass of the season and finished . His bad decision on his interception to Zandier helped turn the game, but overall, Smartt took a step forward in the throw game.

Virginia: After a shaky start, Virginia's defense took control in the second half, holding Old Dominion to just 46 total yards while shutting out the Monarchs after the break. Led by linebackers Jordan Mack and Charles Snowden, The Cavaliers forced two three-and-outs and twice stopped Old Dominion on fourth down. Virginia finished with five sacks.

UP NEXT

Old Dominion: The Monarchs jump into Conference USA play, hosting East Carolina and new coach Mike Houston, on Saturday night.

Virginia: The Cavaliers face their first ranked opponent when they visit Notre Dame.