Nov. 22, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — During his first year as the University of Virginia’s head football coach, Bronco Mendenhall has spoken at numerous functions, many of them Virginia Athletics Foundation socials.

At his first VAF event, the first person he met had a five-word message for Mendenhall: Welcome to UVA. Beat Tech.

“So I understand,” Mendenhall said Monday when asked about the rivalry between the Cavaliers and the Hokies.

He’s no stranger to fiercely contested in-state series. As an undergraduate at Oregon State, Mendenhall played in the Civil War: the annual game between the Beavers and the Oregon Ducks.

Later, at BYU, where he spent two seasons as an assistant and 11 as head coach, Mendenhall experienced the so-called Holy War: the annual clash between the Cougars and the Utah Utes.

The word “rivalry” doesn’t “even come close to doing that justice there,” Mendenhall said.

And now, in his latest coaching stop, he’s about to join the battle for the Commonwealth Cup, awarded each year to the winner of the UVa-Virginia Tech game.

The Hokies have held the Cup for more than a decade. Since defeating Tech at Scott Stadium in 2003, UVA has dropped 12 straight in the series.

“Every year you always want to be the team that ended the skid,” redshirt junior linebacker Micah Kiser said Monday. “In my opinion, it’s not really a rivalry if you’re not winning, if it’s not a back-and-forth type thing. Twelve years in a row, that’s dominance, so we definitely want to try to reverse that trend and get this program going in the right direction.”

Mendenhall hasn’t mentioned the Wahoos’ drought to his players, he said, because they “already know the history. They are living the history, as is the community and the institution and the UVA fans. So noted. And now I’ve got to work like crazy to help our team.”

Junior safety Quin Blanding said he’s not dwelling on Virginia’s losing streak against Tech.

“I don’t care what it is,” said Blanding, the ACC’s second-leading tackler, behind Kiser. “The bottom line is, this is a new team. We have good players, they have good players, and we’ve just got to go out there and play and fight.”

The 98th installment of a series Tech leads 55-37-5 comes Saturday. At noon, in an ACC game that ESPN2 will televise, the Cavaliers (2-9, 1-6) meet the Hokies (8-3, 5-2) at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.

A UVA victory might keep Virginia Tech from representing the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game. They’re not using that as motivation, Virginia’s players said Monday.

“No, we’re just focusing on us,” Blanding said. “That’s the bottom line. We’re going to keep doing what we do, prepare, and we’re just going to keep playing as hard as we can, just really rely on each other.”

Senior quarterback Matt Johns said: “Once you put your focus on the other team — OK, we’re trying to stop them from making the ACC championship — that’s where they have the [upper hand] already, because [the opponent is] saying, `They’re focused on us. Now let’s focus on ourselves.’ [The key for] us to be as prepared as we can this weekend is to focus on ourselves and execute to the best of our ability.”

The current Cavaliers understand how much a victory would mean to the players who preceded them in the program. But the alumni “know it’s a tough road that we’re on,” Kiser said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. So just keep playing hard, keep staying focused and keep trusting what the coaches are telling us.”

Three of the past four games in this series have been decided by four or fewer points. The Hokies won 17-14 in 2012, 24-20 in 2014 and 23-20 last year.

In 2014 and again last season, UVA took the lead on a fourth-quarter touchdown, only to see the Hokies rally for the victory.

“You can’t look away from reality,” Johns said. “That’s what happened. We’ve had the lead and then they take it from us and then we’re not able to answer.

“Coach Mendenhall does a great job of framing every game and he shows us reality. The same thing happened this past week at Georgia Tech. We had stops and we didn’t convert. We had it in the red zone, we didn’t score, we had turnovers that cost us. And that’s reality. And for this program to have that breakthrough, that’s where it starts. It’s not turning the ball over and it’s putting the ball in the end zone when you need to, and holding teams off when the game’s on the line. The breakthrough will come, and we’re not sure when it’ll be. It could be next year. And I’m excited for when it does happen.”

At his weekly press conference Monday, Mendenhall confirmed that Johns will start at quarterback against the Hokies. Junior Kurt Benkert started the first 10 games of the season for UVA, after which Mendenhall turned to Johns, the team’s No. 1 quarterback in 2015.

In a 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Saturday, Johns completed 27 of 44 passes for 220 pounds and one touchdown. The Cavaliers led 10-7 at the break, but two Johns interceptions in the second half helped the Yellow Jackets take control. (With the outcome decided, Johns threw a third pick on the final play of the game.)

“I thought [Johns’] composure and experience and decision-making for a lot of the game was right on point,” Mendenhall said, “and we were playing complementary football, and really some of our best football through, again, about two-and-a-half quarters. And it was fun to watch that all happening at the same time.

“Matt, like some of the other players in our team, when circumstances changed or field position changed, or when we played from behind, he pressed a little bit and made a few mistakes, as did other players on our team. But I would like to give him another chance and see what he can do with our team, and I think he will do a nice job.”

Mendenhall said Johns impressed him with the “almost calm confidence with how he managed the team … A lot of our success in that game, while we were having success, was we were managing early downs really well, which had us in third-and-manageable a lot. And we were converting third downs. They couldn’t get us off the field and they couldn’t stay on the field. So we really had complete control of the game for a long time against a team that thrives on holding on to the ball and not letting the opponent on the field.

“We had reversed the script, and Matt allowed us to do that, especially with his decision-making on early downs and then being poised and putting the ball where it needed to be, just to keep the chains moving. I think there was a sense of confidence and, again, just presence. There was a calming factor to our team.”

In Virginia’s 2014 visit to Blacksburg, Johns entered the game late in the fourth quarter after starter Grayson Lambert left with an injury. Johns said he’s eager to face the Hokies at Lane Stadium again.

“It’s a hostile environment,” he said, “but that’s why you play this game, to go into environments like that.”

Senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins enjoys rivalry games, too.

“There’s just so much passion,” he said. “You can feel it from the stands, from the fans talking trash to you on the sidelines, to being out there in between the lines. It’s a great game.”

Since winning Oct. 1 at Duke, UVA has lost six straight. Even so, the players continue to practice and play hard.

“Last year a lot of guys just wanted it to be over,” Kiser said, “but this year there’s a lot of optimism and a lot of hope.”

Mendenhall said: “I would never open a team meeting to anyone from the outside but, man, this team really likes each other. And the staff and our team [are] really close and unified. When we’re at practice and when we’re at meetings, there’s really zero emphasis on the record. There is so much work going on and optimism and hope, and I think rightly so, and I think it’s well-founded.”

A win over the Hokies would only accelerate the rebuilding process at UVA.

“We definitely need [to add] little building blocks to the foundation,” Kiser said. “I think Coach Mendenhall and his staff are doing a great job of really starting new here, although [there hasn’t been] as much tangible success as we would have liked. With the overall morale of the team and the direction this thing is going in, I’m very optimistic about the future.”

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