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By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In the joyous throng that congregated on the field moments after the game, and later in the jubilant home locker room at Scott Stadium, nobody celebrated No. 25 Virginia’s 31-24 victory over Florida State with more gusto than a select group of former UVA players.
Donte Wilkins. Andre Levrone. Quin Blanding. Mark Hall. C.J. Stalker. Jackson Matteo. Malcolm Cook. Zach Bradshaw. Kirk Garner. Some of them were seniors in 2016, Bronco Mendenhall’s first season as UVA’s head coach. Others also played for Mendenhall in 2017, and Stalker and Cook were on the team last season, too.
“Those guys are the pioneers,” Mendenhall told his current team. “It wasn’t good then, but they helped make it good, and it’s so nice to have [those] guys back today.”
Matteo, Stalker and Garner now work in the program as graduate assistants, and Bradshaw and Wilkins are on the Cavaliers’ recruiting staff. Blanding is not based in Charlottesville, but he’s watched with pride as UVA has climbed under Mendenhall, finishing 2-10 in 2016, 6-7 in 2017, and 8-5 in 2018.
“Absolutely,” Blanding said as players danced around him in the locker room. “I knew this coaching staff was only going to keep growing and growing and growing and keep building and building and building.”
The former All-America safety, whose final college season was 2017, pointed to the front of his T-shirt. On it was printed one of the more memorable quotes from the movie Talladega Nights: If You’re Not First, You’re Last.
“That’s how Coach teaches,” Blanding said, smiling. “If we’re not first, then we’re not in the running. We’re in the running right now, and people better watch out, because it’s coming, and we’re not scared. And that’s what I love about this team. They’re not scared, and they’re going to keep grinding and they’re going to keep fighting.”
The Wahoos (3-0 overall, 2-0 ACC) had to fight until the final play Saturday night. On a last-gasp drive that included four UVA penalties, one of them an unsportsmanlike-conduct call on Mendenhall, the Seminoles (1-2, 0-1) drove to the 4-yard line, using all of their timeouts in the process.
“It felt like we won the game about three different times, but then we didn’t,” said Mendenhall, who was penalized for protesting a pass-interference call on junior cornerback Nick Grant.
With time about to expire, running back Cam Akers took a direct snap––much like FSU’s Warrick Dunn had at that end of the stadium in 1995––and took off for the end zone. Like Dunn in ’95, when Virginia became the first team to beat Florida State in an ACC game, Akers didn’t reach his destination, and this time it wasn’t as close.
Sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor forced Akers to the outside, where senior cornerback Bryce Hall and junior safety De’Vante Cross made the tackle at the 4-yard line.
“It was kind of a funky play, but we just had to get him down by any means,” Hall said.
Not since 2010 had the Seminoles, who once ruled the ACC, played at Scott Stadium. In their second season under head coach Willie Taggart, the Noles are struggling to gain traction, but they proved to be formidable adversaries Saturday night.
“Anyone that was in the stadium today witnessed an amazing football game with two teams trying as hard as they could try to win,” Mendenhall said.
To the Cavaliers’ delight, witnesses abounded at Scott Stadium. The crowd of 57,826 was by far the largest for a home game during the Mendenhall era at UVA.
“It was amazing,” Bryce Hall said. “I was telling my [teammates] before we went out on that last series, ‘This is what we came here for. This is why we play this game, for moments like that.’ And so it was huge, it was exciting, it was fun to be a part of.”
The Cavaliers trailed 17-10 after three quarters, but 45 seconds into the fourth, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins passed 12 yards to senior wide receiver Joe Reed, who made an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone.
Junior Brian Delaney’s extra point made it 17-17, but the Noles answered with a 75-yard TD drive. Again the Hoos battled back, this time covering 75 yards on a drive that ended at the 6:02 mark with the second of sophomore Wayne Taulapapa’s three touchdown runs. Delaney’s extra-point attempt, however, sailed wide right, and the Cavaliers had much more work ahead of them.
The defense did its part, forcing FSU into a three-and-out, and the offense followed suit. The drive began with a 22-yard run by Reed and ended with a 2-yard run by Taulapapa. It also included a 35-yard completion from Perkins to senior wideout Hasise Dubois and a targeting penalty on FSU.
Leading 29-24, the Hoos went for two. Perkins picked apart the Noles with his passing in the second half, but he made this play with his feet, eluding defenders in the backfield before taking off for the left pylon at the front of the end zone. Aided by junior offensive guard Ryan Nelson’s block, Perkins danced into the end zone to make it 31-24 with 2:34 left.
“He’s a magician back there,” junior wideout Terrell Jana said. “He’s one of the best players in the country. We see it in practice, so it’s no surprise, but every time we see it, it’s still like, ‘I’m glad to have that guy on my team.’ “
It would take ages to list every critical play Perkins made Saturday night, but of particular note was his fourth-and-2 run from the FSU 33, with UVA trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter. Perkins bulled forward for 6 yards before his momentum was stopped, an effort that inspired his team and brought fans to their feet.
“How do you stop him?” Mendenhall said. “We’re not growing the program at the rate we’re growing it without Bryce Perkins. He plays within the system really well and he plays outside the system really well, and we need both. He’s exemplary. I’m so lucky he’s here and we’re so lucky he’s here, not only by how he plays but who he is. Without him, we don’t win.”
Mendenhall said he challenged his team “to play harder, longer than [FSU], and our culture is built for that and our players are built to do that. To see them actually accomplish exactly that is really gratifying, for not only each other and the coaches, but hopefully anyone that watched them. They tried their hearts out tonight.”
Jana said: “I think that’s who we are as a program. We knew it was going to be a nailbiter, and we knew it was going to go to the last play, last quarter, so it was no surprise.”
That didn’t make the victory any less satisfying.
“I won’t forget this one, ever,” Mendenhall said.
UNITED PURSUIT: On a night when the NCAA champion UVA men’s basketball team was recognized on the field during the break between the first and second quarters, it seemed fitting that the football game wasn’t decided until the final seconds.
In each of its final three games in the NCAA tournament, UVA had to rally late to win.
“This is Virginia,” former UVA football standout Ahmad Hawkins said, smiling. “It’s always dramatic.”
POSITIVE SIGN: On the offensive line, UVA played four sophomores (Bobby Haskins, Ryan Nelson, Ryan Swoboda and Olusegun Oluwatimi) and two juniors (Chris Glaser and Dillon Reinkensmeyer) against FSU, and the group’s effectiveness increased markedly after the break.
“The second half and fourth quarter, I saw progress,” Mendenhall said. “To see that execution at that time of the game against that opponent in that context, that’s priceless in terms of the growth that happened.
“Everything that happened up to that contributed to their performance in the fourth quarter, so that’s still a group that’s growing and developing, but what a time to grow and develop and then perform well.”
GAME BALLS: The list of players who helped the Cavaliers improve to 3-0 for th first time since 2005 is a lengthy one. UVA’s standouts included:
• Perkins, who completed 17 of 19 passes in the second half. For the game, he was 30-of-40 passing for 295 yards and one TD, with two interceptions. He rushed 12 times for 46 yards.
“I just had to slow it down,” Perkins said of his second-half performance. “I think we all slowed it down kind of as an offense.”
Mendenhall chose Perkins to smash the rock in the locker room, a post-victory tradition for the Cavaliers. Another candidate was Taulapapa, who finished with 53 yards on 18 carries against a rugged FSU defense.
“It could have been either one,” Mendenhall said.
Taulapapa missed Virginia’s Sept. 6 win over William & Mary with an injury, but he showed no ill effects against FSU.
“I love Wayne,” Mendenhall said, “his heart, his consistency, his trustworthiness, how physical he is, how mature he is. The combination between him and Bryce in the short-yardage situations, they just wouldn’t be stopped. It wasn’t pretty necessarily, but short-yardage isn’t really pretty football. But it was effective football.”
• Jana, a junior who finished with seven receptions for 85 yards, both career highs. He credited Perkins for “finding me in the right time, right places, with some really good calls, and me just making the most of the opportunity.”
• Reed, a senior who had a career-high eight catches for 83 yards and one TD. On his lone kickoff return, he picked up 35 yards, and his 22-yard run on UVA’s final drive proved crucial.
“It was a great call by [offensive coordinator] Robert Anae,” Mendenhall said, “and we needed a special play in that moment to get us out of that hole and to change field position as fast as possible. [Anae] deserves all the credit. We had run that play once or twice before with Olamide Zaccheaus, so we’ve kind of had it on the shelf and have been working on it. “
• Jordan Mack, a senior linebacker and team captain who finished with a game-high 13 tackles, including two for loss.
• Nick Grant, a junior cornerback who had two pass breakups in a game in which the Seminoles rarely challenged Bryce Hall on the other side.
“He played well all night, and he was targeted all night,” Mendenhall said of Grant, a first-year starter. “He withstood it like a champion.”
THEY SAID IT: UVA is now 4-15 against the Seminoles, and each of those four victories could have gone the other way. Among the postgame comments:
• Mendenhall on the atmosphere at Scott Stadium: “I felt lucky to be part of it. I’m really proud of my players and staff and the work they put in, and to have another tangible takeaway that progress is being made, and then to have so many people come and support us, was so gratifying to not only myself but to my staff and the players … It had an impact on the game. It helped us win, and I’m appreciative of that. From the student section to the fans to the upper deck to the hill and the end zone, man, what an amazing setting.”
• Mendenhall on the 15-yard penalty he was assessed on FSU’s final drive: “I’ve already apologized to my team for my personal foul. It’s my first-ever. I didn’t set a very good example in that one case.”
• Mendenhall on Perkins’ two interceptions: “I think it’s just the same kind of scenario [as against William & Mary]: just out of the pocket and just trying to do a little too much. It’s a fine line. I would much rather not rein him in. I want an aggressive quarterback. I want him to try and make plays and I want him to think he can make every play. On occasion he might not.”
• Reed on celebrating the victory with former teammates such as Levrone and Blanding: “It’s awesome. We know exactly what they went through. I was a young guy then. They were very good leaders then, and even now they still text us to keep us with us and ask us how we’re doing, so it meant everything to see those guys on the sideline cheering us on.”
• Perkins on his two-point conversion: “Just trying to buy time and wait for somebody, and then at the end just trusting myself and trusting my feet and trusting the guys downfield that they’re going to block.”
• Blanding on the crowd: “I’m just so thankful for our fans who have never given up on us, even though we had some bad years. The good years are coming. Coach Mendenhall promised that, and that’s what he’s doing.”
NEXT UP: Virginia closes a three-game homestand Saturday night with a 7 o’clock game against Old Dominion (1-1). ESPN2 will televise the game, the first-ever between UVA and ODU in football.
Old Dominion, which was off this weekend, lost to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last Saturday.
Tickets are on sale for the ODU game and fans can access a special Youth Day Offer by clicking here.