Nov. 27, 2016
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG — As he walked off the field toward the visitors’ locker room at Lane Stadium, quarterback Matt Johns caught up to nose tackle Donte Wilkins and draped a consoling arm over his friend’s shoulder.
For the University of Virginia football team, a season that began Sept. 3 with a stunning loss to Richmond at Scott Stadium ended Saturday afternoon on a similarly unpleasant note.
In the battle for the Commonwealth Cup, UVA lost 52-10 to Virginia Tech, which will represent the Coastal Division next weekend against Atlantic Division winner Clemson in the ACC championship game.
Led by quarterback Jerod Evans and running back Sam Rogers, the Hokies amassed 579 yards and stretched their winning streak over the Cavaliers to 13 games. Virginia hasn’t won in Blacksburg since 1998.
Three of the previous four meetings had been decided by four points or fewer. This, however, was a mismatch.
“Regarding our performance, I have a base philosophy,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and that is the team plays the way they’re prepared, and I’m responsible for our team plays, I’m responsible for how they’re prepared, and I’m responsible for how they execute. Clearly the outcome today showed that I didn’t prepare them well enough in all phases to handle this opponent in this setting and to give us a chance to win.”
For players such as true freshmen Chris Moore, Landan Word and Matt Terrell, who had eight, six and five tackles against Tech (9-3, 6-2), respectively, there will be other opportunities to try to end Virginia’s long losing streak in this series.
For seniors such as Johns, Wilkins, wide receiver Keeon Johnson, center Jackson Matteo, punter Nicholas Conte, linebacker Zach Bradshaw, safety Kelvin Rainey and running back Taquan Mizzell, who rushed for a game-high 113 yards, their final chance was Saturday.
This was not the ending the seniors envisioned, “but football, it’s a life-lesson game,” Wilkins said. “So we learned a lot from this season and from this game.”
For the fifth straight season and eighth time in nine years, the Wahoos (2-10, 1-7) finished with a losing record.
“This is a massive change effort,” Mendenhall said. “It will require everything that I have, my coaches have and these players have, and [newcomers who] join us.”
The “brutal facts,” Mendenhall said at his postgame press conference, are that Virginia has “a long ways to go to be a championship-caliber football program and to be a consistent winner.”
After starting junior Kurt Benkert at quarterback in each of the first 10 games this season, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae turned to Johns, Virginia’s starter in 2015, last weekend against Georgia Tech.
Against the Hokies, UVA unveiled an unconventional strategy, rotating quarterbacks on nearly every snap for much of the game.
“We had spent all year [trying] to develop a consistent quarterback, and we did not accomplish that,” Anae said. “There were a couple of [reasons] for that, but we felt a changeup toward the end of the season was the best [thing]. After the [Georgia Tech] game it was evident that quarterbacks have different talents. So we went into this game trying to put the quarterback, the things that he did well, put him in those situations.”
The strategy did not yield the desired result. Johns was 4-of-10 passing for 17 yards, with two interceptions.
“I struggled to find a rhythm,” Johns said.
So did Benkert, who completed 9 of 26 passes for 122 yards and UVA’s only touchdown, a 39-yarder to sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus early in the fourth quarter.
“It was nice to get a touchdown, but we needed to execute all day,” Benkert said. “We didn’t do that.”
Virginia’s No. 3 quarterback, senior Connor Brewer, came in for one play, and it was a disaster. On third-and-10 from the Tech 28, Brewer took a shotgun snap and ran to his left. A jarring hit on Brewer knocked the football loose, and linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka returned the fumble 70 yards for a touchdown that made it 45-3.
The Cavaliers finished with a season-low 247 yards.
Playing multiple quarterbacks in the same game is “not ideal,” Mendenhall said. “Nor will it ever be ideal, but we did think in this game it would give us our best chance to help our current team and our current situation move the football and score points.
“My philosophy hasn’t changed one bit, nor will it ever. One quarterback, a single starter, is what’s ideal, and rarely will I ever consider doing it another way. These circumstances were a little bit different, and that’s why I chose to do it.”
Virginia, which dropped its first three games, closed the season with seven consecutive losses. The wins came Sept. 24 against Central Michigan in Charlottesville and Oct. 1 against Duke in Durham, N.C. The victory at Wallace Wade Stadium snapped UVA’s 17-game road losing streak.
“We had really high expectations for this year, and we obviously did not meet many of them,” Benkert said. “But we know where we’re at and we know what we need to improve on. We have a baseline of where we need to start from and improve.”
A critical offseason awaits Mendenhall and his assistants, most of whom worked with him at BYU, too.
“The existing plan that’s in place has proven to be successful for a long time,” Mendenhall said. “That does not mean that every plan works for every place. I’ll look at every part of the program and then make adjustments as needed to learn, grow and move forward. I’m not stubborn in that regard. I want this team to win, and I want to use [the players] in schemes and strategies and designs that will give them their best chance. History has demonstrated it worked very well in the past, but I want what will work now and what will help this program and this team accomplish our goals in the shortest amount of time and last the longest in terms of sustainability.”
He has no illusions about the challenge facing him.
“There’s lots and lots of player development work that needs to [occur],” Mendenhall said. “We’re a youthful football team. We’re a team that’s not very deep. We need to be physically more mature and stronger. We need to build the mental resiliency of our program. We need to add roster depth and numbers as fast as possible to make sure that we can practice and train the way that we need to and get the volume and repetition we need on the football field.
“All the fundamental work that has to do with football, we need improvement there. So what I’ve learned is the [starting] point is below what I thought and it will take everything that I have, our [staffers] have and these players have to right it and get it the way that I think we all want it to be.”