By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
EUGENE, Ore. — Some 2,800 miles away from this college town, a late-summer heat wave continues to pound Central Virginia. Early risers here, meanwhile, awoke Friday to temperatures in the 40s.
It’ll be warmer Saturday night at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, and the University of Virginia football team hopes to heat up, too, in its second game under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, an Oregon State alumnus.
At 10:30 p.m. Eastern, UVA (0-1) meets 24th-ranked Oregon (1-0) in a non-conference game ESPN will televise. The Cavaliers haven’t won a road game since Nov. 3, 2012, and Oregon is heavily favored. Still, the visitors say they’re undaunted.
“I live for opportunities like that,” Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell said.
The Wahoos, senior offensive tackle Michael Mooney said, are eager to show that their first game under Mendenhall, a 37-20 loss to FCS power Richmond at Scott Stadium, “wasn’t indicative of who we are.”
Nobody on the UVA side is more motivated to make amends than Mizzell, a senior from Virginia Beach who struggled against the Spiders.
“Bad games happen,” Mizzell said. “You just gotta have a short memory as a leader and a playmaker. You just gotta make plays from here on out.”
Mizzell, who entered the season as an All-ACC candidate, lost two fumbles in the opener — the first at the Richmond 5-yard line — and finished with seven yards on seven carries. His four receptions gained a modest 24 yards.
“That was probably the worst game, as far as ball security or anything like that, I’ve had since I stepped on a UVA field,” Mizzell said.
And so, on a muggy morning in Charlottesville early this week, Mizzell stayed after practice to go over pass plays with quarterback Kurt Benkert.
“Anytime we have any mistakes or anything that we feel like we need to build chemistry on, there’s always extra work,” said Mizzell, who led UVA in rushing and receptions in 2015. “Me, personally, I’m just got to keep working and working and working so things can be easy for me in the game.
“I’ve just got to get my confidence right. That’s all in my preparation. So I just needed a couple days to get back out at practice, get a feel for things and make plays out here first, before they happen in a game.”
Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, fared better in his UVA debut. He completed 26 of 34 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
“There were a few throws that I wish I had back, obviously,” Benkert said, “but it was a good starting point to see where I’m at and where the offense is at, and we’re just excited to get going forward.”
With four turnovers, the Cavaliers self-destructed against the Spiders, who ended a 10-game losing streak in the series. Mendenhall said he blamed himself for holding Mizzell out of the team’s scrimmages last month.
“We didn’t tackle him live through fall camp,” Mendenhall said. “I think players play as they’re prepared, and so I think in that particular case that we — that I — should have allowed him to be tackled a little bit and get him a little more prepared for that game. And so I think that was a coaching and management issue as well.”
Whatever the reason for Mizzell’s mistakes, his teammates are confident they were aberrations.
“He’s not the guy that’s going to put the ball on the ground,” said Albert Reid, another senior running back. “People say what you put on film is who you are, but I don’t believe Smoke’s that type of guy. I feel like he’s going to bounce back and have a great game next game and hold on to the ball.”
From his days at Oregon State — first as a player and then as a graduate assistant — Mendenhall knows two members of the Ducks’ staff well: secondary coach John Neal and defensive coordinator Brady Hoke.
Hoke, for whom Mendenhall was a GA in Corvallis, oversees a defense that gave up 392 yards and 28 points in a season-opening win over FCS member UC Davis in Eugene.
“They do a lot of different things,” Benkert said of the Ducks. “They like to bring some pressure … They’re fast, like always, and there’s a lot of moving parts, so we just have to keep our eyes open and recognize what they’re doing.”
To put themselves in position for an upset Saturday night, the `Hoos will have to execute better on both sides of the ball, and on special teams, than they did against Richmond. (UVA’s defense allowed 524 yards in the opener.)
But a higher priority to Mendenhall, at least for now, is his players’ effort level. One of his mantras is “will before skill,” and that “means getting kids to try hard and hustle and do things that way first,” Mendenhall said.
“The skill part really is the execution and the mastery part of the game. And so all that was manifest [against Richmond] is just how much that is a necessity, not only for the short term but the long term, to actually improve the quality of execution at every position, every phase of football, including and starting first and foremost with simple fundamentals.”
Mooney said: “I think we could have played with more of an edge than we did. I think people were waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone else to do something.”
The `Hoos are “just excited to get that one behind us,” Benkert said. “It’s not how we wanted to start our season off, and we don’t even want to think about that game anymore. So as a team we’re ready to move on.”
To give themselves more time to adjust to the three-hour time difference, the Cavaliers arrived in Eugene on Thursday night. They’re scheduled to get back to Charlottesville around 9 a.m. Sunday.
Such trips are challenging, Mendenhall acknowledged. “But they can be positive and they can influence team unity and chemistry if designed right, organized right, and the right leadership emerges,” he said.
“That’s what our hope is now with it being so early in our program, that a [game] like this that’s so far away and requires so many things at this stage of our program maybe will be a catalyst for bringing the team together and helping us play to even a higher level.”