Nov. 21, 2017
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2014, the University of Virginia football team entered its annual clash with Virginia Tech needing another win to become bowl-eligible.
More often in recent years, the regular-season finale against the Hokies has arrived with the Cavaliers already eliminated from bowl consideration.
“A lot of times [Virginia’s mindset] was just, `Let’s go spoil Virginia Tech’s season,’ ” fifth-year senior wide receiver Andre Levrone said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
This season, UVA’s second under head Bronco Mendenhall, is different. “There’s more to play for,” Levrone said.
The Wahoos became bowl-eligible on Nov. 4, and they have a chance this weekend to finish a regular season with seven victories for the first time since 2011. At 8 p.m. Friday, in a Coastal Division game ESPN will televise, UVA (6-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) hosts Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3) at Scott Stadium.
“It’s been a long time since November has meant something around here,” said Levrone, who leads the Cavaliers with seven touchdown receptions. “We’re looking forward to capitalizing on it.”
Even more time has passed since the `Hoos have defeated the Hokies in a game whose winner gets the Commonwealth Cup. In a series that dates to 1895, Virginia Tech has won 13 straight games since losing at Scott Stadium in 2003.
At a team meeting that morning, Mendenhall said Monday afternoon, he reminded his players of “the brutal fact that it’s been a long time” since UVA has beaten its biggest rival. But he also told them that many factors out of their control have contributed to the 13-game skid.
What they can control, Mendenhall said, is the “work that we put in for this particular game.”
The Cavaliers prepared well for their most recent game, a 44-28 loss to No. 2 Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. Virginia led by Hurricanes by 14 points early in the third quarter Saturday and trailed by only three midway through the fourth.
Mendenhall said he wants his team’s preparation for the Hokies to be “greater than, not equal to, what we’ve already done. I want it to be our best week. I want it to be our best prep … And that’s how it’s been framed.”
After 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, Mendenhall came to UVA in December 2015. His first game against the Hokies could not have gone much worse for him or his team.
At Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech humbled Virginia 52-10. The Cavaliers rotated quarterbacks for much of the game, often during the same series, with disastrous results. UVA finished with only 247 yards and ended its season with a 2-10 record.
“Anytime there’s a significant setback in our program or our life, you work really hard from there to say, OK, how come? What can we do to address that? How much of those things were us and how much was it just our opponent and some of those matchups?” Mendenhall said Monday.
“Then you take all that information and do the best you can after. So as hard as it was to watch from a year ago, we watched. We’ve watched that game and studied it … and I think there are things that we can improve on. Now the key is practicing and executing those things well enough to address it.
“There were a lot of things that we did not do well on our side of the contest, on all three phases. And so the score and the way that game played out reflected all of that.”
A Senior Night ceremony will be held before the game Friday at Scott Stadium. The five UVA players who were available for interviews at JPJ on Monday — Levrone, linebacker Micah Kiser, safety Quin Blanding, quarterback Kurt Benkert and offensive tackle Jack English — will be among those recognized.
Benkert, who split snaps with Matt Johns during the 2016 game in Blacksburg, has started every game for the `Hoos this year and has thrown 25 touchdown passes, which ranks second on the program’s single-season list. Benkert said he hasn’t watched videotape of last year’s UVA-Tech game this week and doesn’t expect to do so.
“I’ll just watch [the Hokies’ games] from this season,” said Benkert, who transferred to UVA in 2016 after graduating from East Carolina.
“They’re a different team this year. They have a different offense, different guys on defense, and we’re a completely different team. We have different guys in different spots doing different things. So I don’t think anything from last year is really relevant.”
Benkert, Blanding and Kiser are the Cavaliers’ captains. Kiser, a fifth-year senior, said the players don’t talk about UVA’s long losing streak in this series.
“Nope. I haven’t been here 13 years,” said Kiser, who noted that, except for last year’s meeting, UVA-Tech games have been close during his college career.
To get humbled at Lane Stadium last fall hurt the Cavaliers, Kiser acknowledged. “You never forget things like that, but at the same time, we’re moving on,” he said.
“This isn’t last year’s team. This is a whole new team, a whole new standard, and we’re just looking forward to our next opportunity to be able to show what kind of improvements we’ve made this year and hopefully come out with a win … Six wins is great, but we want more. We think we can get seven. We think we can get eight.”
The Cavaliers’ focus all season, Blanding said, has been on going “1-0 each week. That’s the bottom line and that’s what we’re going to stick to and that’s how we’re going to keep our mindset going.”
Kiser and Levrone grew up in Maryland, Benkert in Maryland and Florida. Blanding is from Virginia Beach and English from Richmond, and they were more familiar with the rivalry when they arrived in Charlottesville.
“I think it’s something that’s fun for the state,” said English, whose father graduated from UVA’s law school. “It’s fun for the fans. It’s a lot of fun for us. It’s something I grew up watching. Obviously, it’s been a little lopsided lately, but we’re looking to turn that around now.”
For Virginia’s senior class, this will be its final game at Scott Stadium.
“We’re just going to be really pumped up,” Kiser said. “Coach Mendenhall always talks about surrendering the outcome and just worrying about each play at a time, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Mendenhall, displeased with the Cavaliers’ energy at practice last Tuesday, challenged the players and coaching staff to raise their performances the rest of the week. They responded well.
“He’s pretty even-keeled about things all the time, but you know when he’s upset,” Kiser said. “You know when things aren’t right. He’s not a big yeller or anything like that, but he knows the pulse of the team. He knows exactly what we need and when we need it, and he had us ready to go against Miami, and we’ll get ready to go this week.”
Benkert said: “We know what we’re capable of. We know what we can do. I think we showed that last week [at Miami]. When we’re playing really well we can play with anyone in the country. It’s just about being consistent and doing it every single day in practice and then carrying it over into game day.”
Friday night represents a huge opportunity for a program looking to continue its rise under Mendenhall. But it’s critical, Levrone said, that UVA’s players not get caught up in the storylines surrounding the game.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae “said it best at the end of practice today: `Don’t play the streak. Don’t play the Hokie mantra. Don’t play the team from 2008. Don’t play the team from last year. It’s 2017 Virginia Cavaliers versus the 2017 Virginia Tech Hokies,’ ” Levrone said.
“So that’s the match-up, and that’s what we’re playing for. I know to a lot of people outside, it’s about the streak: `Can we end the streak? Can we end the streak?’ But for us here at the McCue Center working day in and day out, it’s just to be 1-0 and to beat the 2017 Virginia Tech Hokies.”