Sept. 23, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As one of the seniors on the University of Virginia football team, Zach Bradshaw has experienced tough stretches during his college career. At 0-3, the Cavaliers are in the midst of another one. But this season, he said Thursday, is different.
“I think it’s just a mindset thing that’s been the biggest change for us,” said Bradshaw, who starts at inside linebacker in UVA’s 3-4 scheme.
The Wahoos are in their first year under a new coaching staff headed by Bronco Mendenhall, who’s trying to revive a program that’s had only two winning seasons over the past decade. He’s succeeding, UVA players say, even if the team’s record doesn’t reflect it yet.
“Any of the previous seasons I was here, when we started losing, just the way people were talking, the conversations going on in the locker room were not positive,” Bradshaw said.
Not this season. “You would think [because] we’re 0-3, we’re having a terrible season,” Bradshaw said, “but everyone’s still positive, and we’re having fun.”
Sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus voiced similar sentiments on a Wednesday teleconference with reporters.
“From the outside looking in, it probably looks a lot worse than what it actually is, but we know the reality of the situation,” Zaccheaus said. “Yeah, we’re 0-3, but each game we’ve improved tremendously.
“We’re just optimistic about everything, because we’re working hard and we know it’s going to happen eventually. We just don’t know when.”
The `Hoos hope the breakthrough comes Saturday. At 12:30 p.m., Virginia hosts Central Michigan (3-0) in a non-conference game at Scott Stadium.
In his first 11 years as a head coach — all at BYU — Mendenhall had never had a team start 0-2, let alone 0-3, and the losses have been difficult for him.
Even so, Mendenhall said, at practice, in meetings, in the locker room there are “smiles, there’s optimism, there’s probably even more confidence now than there was in the offseason that this program and this team is capable. It’s really fun to be part of.
“I didn’t know what to expect, not only when I arrived, but certainly after our slow start. But the sincere belief and optimism that this will work and our approach in the processes will pay off is contagious. These kids are really fun to be around.”
Virginia has an all-time record of 11-2-1 against Mid-American Conference foes, but few of those opponents were as formidable as this Central Michigan team. The Chippewas already have won at Oklahoma State this season — on a controversial Hail Mary play — and are unlikely to be fazed by their surroundings in Charlottesville.
They have an elite quarterback in Cooper Rush, a 6-3, 230-pound senior who leads active FBS players in career yards passing (10,311) and career total offense (10,248). This season, Rush has passed for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns, with three interceptions, and he’s completed 65.7 percent of his throws.
Rush has poise, and that “comes from experience,” Mendenhall said. “He’s played a lot of football games. He’s been through some really strong performances against really good defenses, and he’s been through some tough performances against good defenses. He’s won and lost and probably everything in between.
“It just looks like the game is slow for him, meaning that the ability for him to recognize what coverage, what front, possible blitz, et cetera, those aren’t things that bother him much. He’s seen enough, he’s played enough, and he’s had enough success, it’s really just the next play and the next team. He’s difficult to rattle.”
Virginia’s No. 1 quarterback, junior Kurt Benkert, missed last season with a torn ACL and is in his first year as a starter. A transfer from East Carolina, Benkert has completed 69 of 115 passes (60 percent) for 698 yards and five TDs, with four interceptions.
Benkert leads an offense that went scoreless for the final 42 minutes and 42 seconds last weekend in a 13-10 loss at Connecticut. Afterward, offensive coordinator Robert Anae cited two major factors in his group’s struggles against the Huskies.
“We are still about 50 percent throw and catch, and that’s absolutely not going to be good enough for us to progress as a team,” Anae said.
“Our third-down conversation rate” — 5 of 16 — “was dismal again. We are not going to improve as a team until that gets better. So right off the cuff those are the two things that right now are holding us back as a team.”
Virginia’s longest pass play this season has been a 34-yard completion to senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson in the final minute of the UConn game. Anae and Mendenhall would like to see more of those deep balls, and so would the players.
“But at the same time,” Johnson said, “if we could get the run game to go, [opponents] have to focus more on the run. If we get the pass game to go … It kind of just stretches them out where they can’t just focus on one particular person or type of pass that we have.”
Benkert has a strong arm, and “when we can give him time, he can really sling it,” center Jackson Matteo said.
The key is pass protection, Matteo said, because that “will open opportunities to take shots down the field, like Coach Mendenhall says. We have the personnel. We can really stretch defenses. It’s just a matter of if we can get on our guys, hat on a hat, and protect the quarterback.”
Virginia’s defense, by contrast, left the UConn game feeling better about itself. Coming off poor performances against Richmond and Oregon, the Cavaliers’ defense limited the Huskies to 277 yards, 38 of which came on one run.
“We had a great week of practice, and it showed,” junior defensive end Andrew Brown said.
Brown, who’s in his first year as a starter, shined brightest against UConn, with 3.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, and a fumble recovery.
“What was working for me was my teammates all playing together,” Brown said. “We’ve all got individual roles that we have to play within the defense. When we execute our position it opens it up for somebody to make the play, and it was just me.”
The defense expects continued improvement as it grows more comfortable with the 3-4 that Mendenhall installed this year.
“It’s like a ladder,” senior end Mark Hall said. “We’re climbing up a ladder, and we’re not going to take a step backwards.”
As a team, the Cavaliers have the same goal. But they realize improvement can be incremental.
“This is not an overnight thing where we just brainwash everyone and teach them all how to win again,” Matteo said. “That’s just not how it happens, and I think that my role for this team and in this program and for the future of this program is to let guys know what they’re capable of. This team is capable of competing at such a high level in our conference and in the nation, and I just want to let people know that this team and this program is going to be successful and it’s a choice. It’s up to us. We control when that happens, and when guys figure that out, this is going to be so special.”