By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– Little about this week will be normal for the University of Virginia football team, and not only because Thanksgiving is Thursday.
For the second time this season, the Cavaliers will play on a Friday. The first time they did so, however, they played at Scott Stadium at 7:30 p.m., and they’d been home the previous Saturday for a game that ended around 3:30 p.m.
UVA was on the road this past Saturday, playing Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The Wahoos didn’t get back to the McCue Center until 10:30 that night, and they’ll be traveling again in a few days.
At 3:30 p.m. Friday, in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia (7-4 overall, 4-3 ACC) meets Coastal Division foe Virginia Tech (4-6, 3-4) at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. ABC will televise the game.
“It’s challenging,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the schedule, and that’s one of the reasons he gave his players a choice when the team met Monday morning.
If they don’t want to take questions from media members ahead of the regular-season finale, Mendenhall told them, they don’t have to. And so Mendenhall was the team’s lone representative during the weekly press conference at John Paul Jones Arena.
“There is urgency to this preparation,” said Mendenhall, who added that he described to his players “what we need to get done and what time frame and what urgency” and told them “that normal isn’t enough.”
Every second is important, Mendenhall said, and he told his players that everything “they’re doing that’s not involved in going to class or winning this game is actually not going to help us. I did give them a choice. I think it gives our team the best chance to be focused, prepared and ready to play the way they’ll need to play in a very difficult environment against a good team.”
There are no classes on UVA on Wednesday, and the team will spend most of the day practicing and meeting. That night, players whose families come to town will have Thanksgiving dinner with them; the other players will eat at coaches’ homes.
The Wahoos will leave for Southwest Virginia on Thanksgiving Day and stay there overnight.
“It’s just one other unique challenge to manage,” Mendenhall said, “and maybe adds to the intrigue and the test of what it takes to get ready for this game, in terms of it’s not a normal game, because it’s not. The timing is more restricted. Thanksgiving is right in the center of it, and then [the game is Friday afternoon].”
This is Mendenhall’s third season at UVA. When he took over the program, the Cavaliers had lost 12 straight games to the Hokies. Tech continued its mastery of Virginia in Mendenhall’s first two seasons, winning 52-10 at Lane Stadium in 2016 and 10-0 at Scott Stadium last year.
In a series that started in 1895, the Hokies’ 14-game winning streak is the longest either program has had. Virginia hasn’t won in Blacksburg since 1998.
“We have a significant deficit to overcome when you look at history,” Mendenhall said. “However, this is ’18’s team versus ’18’s team, and that’s our focus.”
In its first season under Mendenhall, Virginia finished 2-10. The ‘Hoos improved to 6-7 last season and played in a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
Coming into this year, Mendenhall realized that nothing would help his program take another significant step forward more than a victory over Virginia Tech. And so the Cavaliers adopted a different approach to the rivalry.
At the end of every workout and every practice – until the start of the regular season, when the focus shifted to the next opponent – UVA players broke their huddles with a new mantra: “Beat Tech!”
Since coming to UVA from BYU, Mendenhall said, he’s learned “how important this game is to our university, our fans and our players.”
The annual clash between the state’s ACC teams is “disproportionately more valuable than any other game at this point in UVA’s football program,” Mendenhall said. “And so it’s not just another game. It has more value. It has a bigger chance to impact our program, to generate momentum, and to continue building and doing things that haven’t been done for a while, and those things have to be done to make progress.”
A UVA victory Friday would not only end the Hokies’ winning streak in the series, it would snap their string of 25 consecutive bowl appearances. Moreover, it would assure Virginia of finishing with at least eight victories for only the second time in the past decade.
“It’s always exciting to have an occasion to rise to, something that’s meaningful to play for at the end the year and, in this case, for our program,” Mendenhall said.
Tech, in its third season under head coach Justin Fuente, has been uncharacteristically vulnerable. The Hokies have lost four straight games and five of their past six. Injuries and attrition have left them short-handed at many positions, especially on defense, and they’ve allowed at least 31 points in each of the past four games.
The Cavaliers, for the first time in memory, enter as favorites. That should not affect their mindset, Mendenhall said emphatically.
“There is no chance we’ll be overconfident,” he said. “There is so much work to do in our program and the things we have to correct … Who is favored or not means nothing to me. We have a really good opponent to play in the ACC on the road in a rivalry setting. That alone is challenging enough.”
Virginia is coming off an overtime loss to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets prevailed 30-27, but Mendenhall praised his players’ effort, if not their execution.
“They played hard. I thought they played physical,” he said. “They are becoming what I expect and how I expect: a good football team, a physical football team and a competitive football team to play every week.
“As the standards keep raising, the expectations from me to them keep raising. We expect to win, and we are always disappointed and frustrated if we don’t.”
The Cavaliers forced overtime in Atlanta with a last-second field goal by sophomore Brian Delaney and then had an opportunity to win after holding Georgia Tech to a field goal on the first possession of OT.
“The best way to recover from being disappointed is to get right back to work and have success,” Mendenhall said. “That just adds one more thing that makes this game important.”