By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — At his end of his remarks, University of Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall stood up and saw Quin Blanding and Kurt Benkert ready to take their turns at the postgame press conference. Mendenhall shook hands first with Blanding, the Cavaliers’ All-America safety, and then with Benkert, their record-setting quarterback.
UVA’s season ended Thursday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and so did the college careers of many of the team’s leaders, including Blanding and Benkert. The finale, played in frigid conditions before a capacity crowd that included a strong turnout of Virginia fans, did not go as anyone associated with the program had hoped.
“It was a bad day for us,” wide receiver Joe Reed said after UVA’s 49-7 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl.
Reed, a sophomore, provided one of the few highlights for the Wahoos (6-7), returning the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. But the Midshipmen (7-6) controlled the final 59 minutes of this game, spoiling the Cavaliers’ bid to finish with a winning record for the first time in six years.
“I think [Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo] had his team very well-prepared,” Mendenhall said. “In regards to our play, I believe players play as they’re prepared, and so clearly I didn’t have our team prepared to perform to their true potential offensively, defensively and or [on] special teams.”
Virginia faced two triple-option offenses this season. In a Nov. 4 victory at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers’ defense slowed Georgia Tech’s attack, but Navy ran wild Thursday. The Midshipmen didn’t complete a pass, but they didn’t need to. Led by quarterbacks Malcolm Perry and Zach Abey, Navy rushed for 452 yards and seven touchdowns against against the `Hoos.
“I didn’t have them prepared well enough to play assignment football nor for their mindset to be what it needed to be,” said Mendenhall, also Virginia’s defensive coordinator. “And also Navy was more physical than us, really from beginning to end.”
Abey scored five TDs and Perry, who netted 114 yards, scored two. Running back Chris High carried 19 times for 101 yards.
“It all starts with the guys up front,” said Perry, who rushed for 250 yards against Army in the Midshipmen’s regular-season finale. “They did a really good job. Our guys carrying the ball ran physical. We played Navy football today.”
UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae‘s group, meanwhile, ended the season in a funk. With 12:21 left in the third quarter of Virginia’s penultimate regular-season game, against ACC rival Miami, Benkert passed to senior running back Daniel Hamm for a touchdown. Virginia’s offense did not score another point the rest of the season.
Benkert, who this year set the school’s single-season record for passing yards, completed only 16 of 36 throws Thursday for 145 yards, with one interception.
“Benkert is a really good quarterback,” Niumatalolo said. “I thought we kept them off-balance enough and did a lot of different things. Our defense played lights out.”
The Midshipmen “were really prepared,” Benkert said. “They kind of had us figured out early, especially when we got down and weren’t doing anything offensively to keep up.”
The Cavaliers’ running game continued to struggle. Virginia, which had 5 yards rushing against Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale, finished with 20 against Navy.
“We’ve had strong success throwing the ball, and the Naval Academy has struggled defending the pass, at least statistically,” Mendenhall said, “so we believed that matchup would be in our favor. But we didn’t throw, catch or execute in protection as well, and the run game hasn’t been consistent enough all year for us to rely or count on that, and when we got behind, it put even more pressure on the throw game.”
Benkert said: “We never really found our stride as the game went on. That’s not really an excuse. I have to find a way to deliver the ball in the right spot and be as accurate as possible, and I wasn’t able to do that consistently all day.”
And so the Cavaliers exited with a humbling defeat for the second straight year. In 2016, Mendenhall’s first season as Virginia’s head coach, his team finished 2-10 after losing 52-10 to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Mendenhall vowed that UVA’s players and coaches would learn from that setback, and they did. This year, the `Hoos became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. But they dropped six of their final seven games and head into the offseason with more questions to answer.
“It’s a learning experience,” Reed said. “We played a tough Navy football team, and it showed how much more tough we have to be mentally and physically in these conditions.”
Virginia’s performance against Navy should not overshadow his program’s many accomplishments this year, Mendenhall said. But he acknowledged that the defeat marred a memorable season, “because it’s never fun to not play well and to lose the game,” Mendenhall said. “But it’s also reflective of exactly where we are, and that’s not an accident. And so it might be the most valuable game of the year.”
The coaching staff, Mendenhall said, came away from the Military Bowl with a clearer idea of the Cavaliers’ weaknesses, which “maybe weren’t exposed quite to the level [during the regular season] that they were today. In a way, it’s hard to take, but it’s also necessary, at least in this case, for us to go forward.”
Virginia opens the 2018 season against Richmond on Sept. 1 at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers will take the field for that game without such mainstays as Benkert, Blanding, Hamm, All-America linebacker Micah Kiser, defensive end Andrew Brown, offensive tackle Jack English, linebacker Malcolm Cook, and wideouts Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling.
“We started a foundation, we started a platform, and it’s only going to go up from here,” said Blanding, who leaves with 495 career tackles, a Virginia record.
In 2018, Mendenhall will build around such returning players as Reed, defensive linemen Eli Hanback and Mandy Alonso, linebackers Chris Peace and Jordan Mack, defensive backs Juan Thornhill, Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson, offensive linemen Chris Glaser and Jake Fieler, running back Jordan Ellis, tight end Evan Butts, and wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, who finished the year with 85 receptions, a single-season record at UVA.
“I think we have a great future,” Reed said. “We have some great guys coming back and we’ll come back in January and we’re going to hit the ground running.”
Benkert said: “I think as new recruits come in and [the coaches] get the people that kind of fit the mold of what they want to do on offense and on defense, it’s only going to get better. We’re only just scratching the surface … At the end of the day, it’s just the beginning of what I feel like we can do here at Virginia.”
THEY SAID IT: While Navy celebrated an emphatic victory, the Cavaliers were left to ponder their many breakdowns in their first postseason appearance in six years. Among the postgame comments from both sides:
* Mendenhall on the conditions (24 degrees at kickoff, with 13-mph winds): “I just don’t think we executed, concentrated or performed well. I can’t say how much the inclement weather had to do with it. I don’t know. I expect our guys to play well regardless of circumstance, and my job is to prepare them that way. We just never really found rhythm, connected, or mounted any semblance of a threat.
* Blanding: “They just outplayed us, and that’s the bottom line. They came ready to play, and we didn’t, and that’s the bottom line, and I commend them over there at the Naval Academy.”
* Thornhill on the Midshipmen’s option attack: “We felt like we knew exactly what was coming. But once you got in the game, it was a lot faster, because the scout team couldn’t give you the exact look they gave you.”
* Thornhill: “Today was a great test. It shows what we need to work on and the mentality we need to bring for next year.”
* Niumatalolo: “That’s the best we’ve played all year. We put it together on both sides of the ball … This was as decisive of a win as we’ve had in a long, long time against an ACC team.”