Dec. 27, 2017

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By Jeff White (

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two years into his overhaul of the University of Virginia football program, head coach Bronco Mendenhall is well aware that much work remains to be done.

“We’re at the beginning,” Mendenhall said Wednesday afternoon. “If it were a book, I’d say we’ve opened the cover, but we haven’t even read the introduction yet.”

Still, there’s been indisputable progress. After a sobering first season under Mendenhall for the Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016, they became bowl-eligible this fall for the first time in six years. And now they have an opportunity to finish with a winning record for the first time since that 2011 season.

Not since 2005, when they defeated Minnesota in the Music City Bowl, have the Wahoos ended a season with a victory.

“That would be something else we could cherish,” UVA wide receiver Doni Dowling said.

At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Virginia (6-6) meets Navy (6-6) in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Maryland. ESPN will televise the game.

Dowling, a senior from Richmond, is among the Cavaliers who’ll end their college careers at 34,000-seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Others include quarterback Kurt Benkert, wideout Andre Levrone, punt-returner Daniel Hamm, offensive linemen Jack English, John Montelus and Brandon Pertile, defensive end Andrew Brown and Virginia’s two All-Americans: linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding.

A win over the Midshipmen, Mendenhall said, would have significant consequences, all positive, for the `Hoos. Not only would their seniors leave on a high note, a victory would propel the program “into the offseason, which then carries over into the spring and the summer,” Mendenhall said.

“It matters, your last performance, bowl game-wise. It’s one thing to qualify. It’s a whole different thing to perform well and win the game … It doesn’t determine the next season’s outcome, but it certainly provides momentum.”

Mendenhall prefers not to coach against his friends in the profession, but he’ll have no choice Thursday in Annapolis. He and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo have known and respected each other for years. They share a faith — each is Mormon — and Mendenhall coached Niumatalolo’s son Va’a at BYU.

Mendenhall said UVA’s and Navy’s programs and coaching staffs are aligned in many ways. Each has looked to the other for ideas, and they aspire to do more than produce winning teams. They want to help build men of high character who’ll contribute to society after leaving college.

“I think Kenny and I both feel the same way,” Mendenhall said Wednesday before the Military Bowl luncheon at a Washington hotel. “Right up until the time the ball is kicked off, our relationship is normal, and then it goes right back to that at the time the last whistle blows. It’s just kind of one of the things professionally that we do.”

Niumatalolo said: “We’ve admired each other from afar for a long time. When you’re that close to a program and you kind of study the other program, you don’t like playing each other. [But], obviously, it is what it is.”

On the field, both teams emphasize discipline and toughness.

“That’s always been Bronco’s culture: discipline, effort,” Niumatalolo said. “The kids always played hard at BYU. They always played really, really hard. At Virginia, it’s continued on.”

Another connection between the two teams: Both Mendenhall and Niumatalolo are part of coaching lines that include George Welsh, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

Welsh, a Navy graduate, was head coach of his alma mater before taking over at UVA. He revived a moribund program at Navy, posting a 55-46-1 record, with three bowl appearances, in nine seasons. The Midshipmen went 31-15-1 in their final four seasons under Welsh, who left for Virginia in December 1981, taking most of his assistant coaches with him.

Welsh was the winningest coach in Navy history until Niumatalolo surpassed him in 2014.

In Charlottesville, Welsh inherited a program that had finished above .500 only twice in the previous 19 seasons. In the next 19 seasons under Welsh, the `Hoos finished with a winning record 17 times. He retired in December 2000 with a 134-86-3 record at UVA.

Welsh, 84, is recovering from hip surgery and won’t be able to attend the Military Bowl. But his presence will be felt at the game. On the back of each Cavalier’s helmet Thursday will be a decal with 189 Wins next to the logos of the two teams.

“It’s pretty cool that Virginia’s doing that,” Niumatalolo said.

Mendenhall said: “We wanted to honor George and the connection between UVA and Navy … It’s a small thing, but it’s also a symbolic thing.”

Each team ended the regular season with a loss to its biggest rival. Virginia fell 10-0 to Virginia Tech in Charlottesville and Navy lost 14-13 to Army in Philadelphia.

“It was a pretty devastating loss for our program,” Niumatalolo said. “Hopefully, our guys have moved on and found a way to get ready for [the Cavaliers]. Because if we’re not, we’ll get embarrassed by these guys. That’s how good they are.”

Like Georgia Tech, which Virginia defeated 40-36 at Scott Stadium early last month, Navy runs the triple option on offense. But the Midshipmen are more “innovative, more creative” than the Yellow Jackets, with “more formations and different plays,” said Mendenhall, who’s also UVA’s defensive coordinator.

“Georgia Tech is very, very good, but they’re also very good at a smaller number of things and very intentional. Navy is good at those things, and then they also add variety and innovation to it.”

The Midshipmen, who rarely pass, have a dynamic running game led by sophomore quarterback Malcolm Perry, who rushed for 250 yards against Army. He’ll face a UVA defense that lost two linemen — Juwan Moye and Steven Wright — late in the regular season when they were suspended for violating team rules. Each has since left the program.

The Cavaliers are expected to start Brown, redshirt sophomore Eli Hanback and true freshman Mandy Alonso up front in their 3-4 defense Thursday. Reserve linemen include redshirt sophomore Richard Burney, who switched from tight end to defensive end after the regular season.

“I’m as comfortable as you can be with about four [linemen] against option football,” Mendenhall said, smiling.

“It’s just one of the next coaching challenges and part of building a program and getting the roster set to where you don’t have to worry about some of those things. But right now that is where it is. Richard Burney‘s done a nice job, and I would anticipate his debut [on defense] will be against option football. That skips about 20 steps of normal football to get to that, but that’s where we are.”

Against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers’ problems were on the other side of the ball. “The defense did well,” Dowling said. “The offense didn’t show up.”

Benkert has passed for a school-record 3,062 yards (and 25 touchdowns) this season, but the Hokies controlled the line of scrimmage and harassed him throughout the game. Virginia finished with a season-low 191 yards, only five of which came on the ground.

Dowling, who’s caught 48 passes for 632 yards and five TDs this season, expects a much better performance from the offense Thursday.

“We’ve had a long time to prepare,” Dowling said, “and I feel like this week [in practice] we’ve been hitting on all cylinders.”

Asked Thursday about Benkert, Niumatalolo said, “There’s not a throw in the book that he can’t throw. He puts the ball on the money. He’s got great accuracy. It’s going to be a tough match-up for us.”

The Cavaliers held their final practice of 2017 on Wednesday afternoon. Before they hit the field, they attended a luncheon at which the speakers included NFL Hall of Famer Darrell Green and his son, Jared, a former UVA wide receiver.

“It’s been a great week here in D.C.,” Mendenhall said. “Our players, I think, have really enjoyed the experience.”

The Cavaliers arrived on Christmas Eve. The highlights of their stay have included a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“I think it’s been a powerful educational trip as well, not only about our country and the nation’s capital, but also some of the specific museums and places they’ve visited,” Mendenhall said. “I know they’ve have had an impact.”

Each of Mendenhall’s 11 seasons as head coach at BYU end with a postseason appearance, and he understands the value of the extra practices that bowl teams are allowed.

Over the past month, his goal has been twofold: to prepare the Cavaliers for Navy and to accelerate the growth of the team’s younger players. On Thursday, however, the goal will be singular: to defeat the Midshipmen.

“It’s what we’re here for,” Dowling said.

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