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By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In 2016, Bronco Mendenhall’s first season at the University of Virginia, his football team played only one game that started later than 3:30 p.m., and that was on the road.
The Cavaliers played two night games in 2017, one of which was at home, and four in 2018, including three at Scott Stadium.
For Mendenhall and his team, his fourth season could be called UVA Football After Dark. The Wahoos’ fourth game will mark their fourth straight appearance under the lights. At 7 p.m. Saturday, No. 21 Virginia (3-0) hosts Old Dominion (1-1) at Scott Stadium.
“There’s nothing like it,” junior linebacker Rob Snyder said.
“I love ’em,” senior defensive end Richard Burney said of night games, “because the crowd is electric, everybody’s hyped up, it’s just a good atmosphere.”
After playing a 3:30 p.m. game at Notre Dame on Sept. 28, the Hoos will have the next weekend off. Then comes an 8 p.m. game at ACC foe Miami on Friday, Oct. 11. (The starting times of the Cavaliers’ final six regular-season games have yet to be announced.)
On the road, Virginia has no objection to day games. At home, however, “I think the night games fit really well at UVA,” Mendenhall said. “I’m learning enough about the community and the fan base and our student body, and just my sense in that short amount of time is that’s the best fit. It appears that that’s when we garner the most support [and] seems to me that’s when our fans would like to attend the games.
“The difficult thing for players is to manage the full day on Saturday before we play. However, part of developing and building a program is more of the prime-time slots in television exposure. I view it all as a sign of progress, but I also, I think, fundamentally view it is as natural fit for this institution.”
The average attendance for UVA’s six games at Scott Stadium last season was 39,705. This season, the Cavaliers are averaging 51,538 at home after drawing 45,250 for William & Mary and 57,826 for Florida State.
The student turnout for the W&M game––10,027––was the highest at Scott Stadium since 2008. The crowd for the FSU game was by far the largest at home during Mendenhall’s tenure as the Cavaliers’ coach.
“As players we try to focus on what we have to do,” Burney said, “but you just couldn’t help but hear when we did something successful, hear the crowd and hear how loud it was. That definitely has an impact for the other team’s offense when they’re trying to make plays or do plays. I felt that Saturday, and it’s nice to have that.”
The crowd “brought us energy,” senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois said, and “I just feel as though we fed off of it.”
If there’s a downside to late starts, it’s the waiting game the Cavaliers must play while awaiting kickoff.
“A lot of players get anxious,” Burney said. “It’s just a different type of preparation when you have a night game. But I’ve enjoyed it. It’s challenged me and my teammates in different ways in terms of preparation.”
Some players take the opportunity to get a little sleep. That’s not a viable option for offensive lineman Dillon Reinkensmeyer.
“I can’t nap,” Reinkensmeyer said. “I’ve never been able to nap, which is unfortunate. It just kind of drags a little bit on Saturday. You wake up, and then you’ve got a walk-through, and then another hour-and-a-half break, and then lunch, and then go to rehab and stuff like that.
“Night games are really cool, the atmosphere, but [they’re challenging] in terms of doing anything else the rest of the day. You have to keep your mind off of it, or otherwise you’ll drain yourself mentally.”
As much as Snyder enjoys playing at night, he acknowledges “there’s a lot of down time throughout the day, and the days are very slow on a Saturday. I spend most of the day just napping and watching film. We finally get on the bus around 5:30 to play a night game, and I haven’t really done much other than that.”
Snyder’s routine on such Saturdays is to wake up early, grab some coffee, and meet defensive linemen Eli Hanback for breakfast. Togeher they’ll watch ESPN’s College GameDay show, Snyder said, “and throughout the day we’ll watch games as well.”
This will be the first football game between schools located about 165 miles from each other. UVA has been playing football since 1888. ODU launched its program in 1930 and discontinued it 11 years later.
In 2009, football returned to the Norfolk school, with the Monarchs competing at the FCS level. They moved up to the FBS in 2014 and compete in Conference USA.
The Monarchs, who finished 10-3 in 2016, dipped to 5-7 in 2017 and to 4-8 last season. But one of those 2018 victories ranks among the biggest upsets in college football history.
In Norfolk, ODU stunned Virginia Tech 49-35. The Hokies avenged that loss on Sept. 7, defeating the Monarchs 31-17 in Blacksburg.
“I know there is intrigue because of the in-state matchup and [ODU’s games] versus Virginia Tech a year ago and this year,” Mendenhall said. “That game [in Blacksburg] was close and contested and competitive.”
This is the first of three games scheduled between UVA and ODU. They’ll meet in Norfolk in 2020 and in Charlottesville in 2022.
Virginia hosts another FBS newcomer, Liberty, on Nov. 23 and then again next season. That series will resume in 2027. (The Cavaliers defeated the Flames at Scott Stadium last season.)
“I like the idea of in-state, close, regional [match-ups] because of the intrigue,” Mendenhall said. “If I have my choice to travel across the country to play Oregon or stay in-state, I would much rather stay in-state.”
The Monarchs, off this past weekend, started preparing for their visit to Charlottesville immediately after their trip to Blacksburg. UVA locked in on Florida State last week. The result was a dramatic victory the Cavaliers savored for the rest of the weekend, but they say their attention now is fully on ODU.
“It was a big culture win, but a win’s a win, and we’re just on to the next,” Reinkensmeyer said.
Mendenhall agreed. “I think the team matter of factly knows that Monday is Monday. This is the next game. We’ve already moved on, and have to.”
The Cavaliers, who were off Sunday, reviewed the FSU game Monday morning, and now “we’re just focused on ODU, doing what we have to do to be able to win that game,” Burney said.
It’s easier for Hoos to move on from an important win now than it might have been in 2017 or ’18, Burney said. “The culture’s changing. Like Coach said, we’re maturing. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.”