By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Fall reading days continue at the University of Virginia, where classes for most students don’t resume until Wednesday. Many of those students left town on Friday for an extended weekend.
Among those who remained on Grounds were the members of the UVA football team. If it’s been something less than a vacation for the Cavaliers, they still appreciate the break as they prepare to resume ACC play.
At 8 p.m. Friday, in a Coastal Division game that ESPN will televise, No. 20 Virginia (4-1, 2-0) meets Miami (2-3, 0-2) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
The break from classes, junior linebacker Charles Snowden said Monday, “gives you more time to really just focus on football, and also [for] healing your body up. You don’t have to worry about the stress of being a student during the day. You can really just lock in, get some extra time watching Miami’s film, stretching, being in the training room, and especially sleeping as well.”
The Wahoos haven’t played since Sept. 28, when they lost 35-20 at then-No. 10 Notre Dame. The Hurricanes are less rested. They lost at home Saturday to Virginia Tech, which led 28-0 in the first half but needed a late touchdown to win 42-35.
“This additional time gives us a little bit of an advantage, I feel like,” UVA junior safety Joey Blount said Monday. The bye week “helped a lot,” he said, “just getting [players’] bodies together mentally and physically.”
For head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff, the first of the Wahoos’ two bye weeks gave them an opportunity to thoroughly evaluate their performance and tactics through five games. For most of the week, the players ran and lifted each day under the direction of the strength and conditioning coaches. The Hoos returned to practice on Friday and Saturday and then, after taking Sunday off, went hard Monday morning.
“It was good to be practicing again today in a game-week setting,” Mendenhall said Monday afternoon. “Game week usually adds a different level of focus and urgency. Bye week there’s preparation and there’s study and there’s reframing and resetting and renewal.”
The staff engages in self-scouting throughout the season, Mendenhall said, but “the bye week gives you more time to digest and sometimes go a little deeper in asking specific questions.”
Of the seven teams in the Coastal Division, only UVA has not lost at least one ACC game. Three Coastal teams have two conference losses each.
“There is very little margin for error for any team in this league at any time, especially in our division,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers won’t play their fourth and final non-conference game until Nov. 23, when Liberty visits Scott Stadium. Each of the next five weekends will bring an ACC game for UVA.
Mendenhall compared it to going on a ride at a carnival. “Here is the Coastal ride,” he said, “and we’re going right into five straight Coastal games, and those are more meaningful and they are more impactful … and, holy cow, you never know what’s going to happen when you’re on that ride.”
The players were off Saturday afternoon, and many of them tuned into the Miami-Virginia Tech game, which started at 3:30. Snowden watched it by himself in his apartment.
“I just enjoyed my Saturday, being able to be a college football fan,” he said.
His takeaways from the game?
“One, Miami’s resilience in being down early and fighting back,” Snowden said, “and also just Tech’s resilience, once Miami went on their run late in the game.”
Other UVA players got together Saturday afternoon for a cookout at which the Hurricanes’ clash with the Hokies was a focal point.
“It was a really good football game,” Blount said. “I enjoyed watching it. Just two teams that we play later on this next game and later on this season. It’s good to measure your talent versus two teams we play.”
UVA closes the regular season against Virginia Tech on Nov. 29 at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers’ immediate concern is Miami, whose record belies its talent level.
The Canes “have athletes everywhere on the field,” Snowden said. “They’re explosive. When they’re clicking, they’re clicking. It’s hard to stop them. Keeping that in mind, we just have to make sure we know that at any moment they can gash us.”
Miami used two quarterbacks against Virginia Tech. Jarren Williams started but gave way to N’Kosi Perry after throwing three first-half interceptions.
Mendenhall was unsure which quarterback UVA would face Friday night, but said he believes “there is enough film and there is enough information on both and with a little extra time I think that that will be helpful.”
Defense has been the Cavaliers’ strength this season. The offense has been less consistent, especially on the line. Notre Dame sacked UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins eight times, and three of those hits resulted in momentum-changing turnovers.
Virginia has no seniors on the offensive line, and that’s “really the position group right now that’s controlling the speed in which we can progress,” Mendenhall said. “Because of its direct effect on the run game and the pass game, there’s really no offensive play where that can be a workaround. It has to go through the offensive line.”
This is Mendenhall’s fourth season at UVA, and the quality and quantity of the team’s offensive linemen was an issue when he arrived in Charlottesville. The Notre Dame game notwithstanding, there have been signs of progress up front, but much work remains.
“There is no comfort zone for our offensive line,” Mendenhall said. “There’s continual expectation, asking and directing and prompting and driving, and they want to get better, they need to get better, and they’re working hard to get better. That’s just a matter of factually where we are.”
The Cavaliers rank seventh among ACC teams in passing yards per game (256.0). But their average of 107.6 rushing yards per game ranks last in the ACC.
“That’s a part of the game that we need to get better at,” said Taulapapa, Virginia’s leading rusher (45.8 yards per game), “and every day we’re continuously working to get right at that.”
From the linemen to the backs, Taulapapa said, everyone on that side of the ball is “working to get our physicality up, our toughness up, to be able to get the yards we need on offense to really get our offense going. Bryce can’t do it all.”
The bye week would have been more enjoyable, Snowden said, had the Hoos knocked off the Fighting Irish. “But it is nice being able to get those extra hours of sleep, kind of refresh, reframe, and then the pain of that loss, once we start practice back up, you kind of have in the back of your head while you’re practicing.”