By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia football team entered the season with multiple goals. The top four: finish first in the Coastal Division, defeat Virginia Tech, capture the ACC championship, and win a bowl game.
Back-to-back losses have slowed Virginia’s momentum, but those goals are “all still in front of us, all on the table,” sophomore offensive tackle Bobby Haskins said Monday, “and our mindset is just to go 1-0 this week against Duke.”
The Cavaliers, who haven’t played at Scott Stadium since Sept. 21, meet the Blue Devils there at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in a Coastal Division game to be aired on ACC Network.
“I’m eager to go out there right now,” junior defensive lineman Mandy Alonso said Monday. “We need to just get this win, because we still have the back-to-back losses and that taste in our mouth.”
Virginia improved to 4-0 with a Sept. 21 win over Old Dominion. Since then, however, the Cavaliers have dropped two road games, losing 35-20 at then-No. 10 Notre Dame on Sept. 28 and 17-9 at Coastal Division foe Miami on Friday night.
“It’s not discouraging at all,” senior wide receiver Joe Reed said. “We still have the same mindset [as before] the season. We’re still working toward the same goals that we had coming into the season. Really, it just comes down to learning experiences, learning from our losses, learning from our mistakes and just trying to move forward.”
The Wahoos now “know what we have to work on,” sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor said. “So if we had won those two games, we might have thought that we’d made it, but now it’s like we have work harder. There’s so much more that we have to work on.”
UVA (4-2, 2-1) and Duke (4-2, 2-1) are tied with North Carolina (3-3, 2-1) for the Coastal lead. Of the seven teams in the division, only Georgia Tech (1-5, 0-3) has yet to win a conference game. Virginia opened the season with a win at Pitt and defeated Florida State at Scott Stadium two weeks later.
“Most of these games are dead even in terms of how the matchups look,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Miami was one of those. I expect almost every other one to be the same, as was Pitt, where I think any team has a great chance to beat any other team on any given Saturday. It’s that close within our division.”
Virginia’s margin for error has shrunk considerably since this time last week. In the second quarter Friday night, senior cornerback Bryce Hall, an All-American in 2018, suffered a season-ending injury. Hall, one of the Cavaliers’ captains, had surgery on his left ankle Sunday morning, and he’s expected to fully recover.
At the weekly press conference Monday at John Paul Jones Arena, Mendenhall and several players spoke at length about Hall.
“Bryce is just an amazing young person and has had and does have a huge impact on our program,” Mendenhall said. “I’m thankful for his efforts, for the chance to be his coach, for his influence not only on the team, but in my life … He and I were talking a few weeks ago about a quote we liked. It was in relation to people who were human buoys, nothing can get them down. That’s basically what he said. He said, ‘Coach, I’m a human buoy.’ He was smiling and he’s remained in good spirits and has just been exemplary in everything he’s done.”
Alonso said Hall has “handled it, honestly, the best out of everyone. Even when it first happened, he was just really calm about it. And he wasn’t freaking out on the field or anything. And he was basically telling Coach, ‘It’s gonna be all right, it’s gonna be all right,’ as he was leaving.”
Taylor said: “He’s not sad. He’s not moping around. He’s still the same Bryce.”
Like Hall, Reed arrived at UVA and played as a true freshman that fall. He’s the “hardest-working guy I know, so it was definitely tough to see [the injury],” Reed said. “But after talking to Bryce, man, he’s just so positive about his situation. He’s looking forward to the best outcomes that could come out of the situation.”
An unheralded recruit from Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Hall started seven games as a true freshman in 2016, Mendenhall’s first season at UVA. He started all 13 games in 2017 and all 13 in 2018, when he led the nation with 22 pass breakups and was named a second-team All-American.
In addition to anchoring the Cavaliers’ secondary, Hall started on two special-teams units: kickoff, which he captained, and punt return. He suffered the injury Friday night while blocking on teammate Billy Kemp IV’s 19-yard punt return.
His absence will “affect everything on our team,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016, improved to 6-7 in 2017 and to 8-5 last season, when they defeated South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl.
Hall has been instrumental in the program’s resurgence, Mendenhall said, and “I’m sure [he] will handle this in an amazing way and will lead from where he is now … So, yes, it hurts emotionally. Yes, it hurts in a lot of different ways, including tactically. But already how he’s handled it, he’s taught us a lot. I think it will end up helping our program at some point, at some time, in the new role that he has.”
Virginia opened training camp in August with excellent depth at cornerback, but that’s no longer the case. Three of the Cavaliers’ top four players at that position are out with season-ending injuries: Darrius Bratton, Heskin Smith and, now, Hall.
For defensive coordinator Nick Howell, who also oversees the secondary, the priority is having his best defensive backs on the field at any one time, Mendenhall said. With Hall out, the top five now are juniors Nick Grant and De’Vante Cross at cornerback and juniors Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson and Chris Moore at safety. Cross moved from safety to corner after Hall went down at Hard Rock Stadium.
Backing that group up, Mendenhall said, are redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker at cornerback and true freshman Antonio Clary at safety.
Not all the medical news was bad for the Cavaliers. Mendenhall said senior wideout Hasise Dubois is expected to play against the Blue Devils. Dubois, who has 32 receptions for a team-high 427 yards (and two touchdowns) this season, was injured on a play late in the third quarter that resulted in the ejection of a Miami defender for targeting.
“He’s recovering,” Mendenhall said of Dubois.
Even with Dubois, who’s having a career year, the Hoos’ offense has struggled recently. With 43 seconds in the first half at Notre Dame, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins passed to Dubois for a 16-yard TD. Since then, Virginia has scored all of 12 points, on four field goals by Brian Delaney.
UVA drove inside the Miami 25 six times Friday but couldn’t cross the goal line.
“I thought our team competed well,” Mendenhall said. “I think we tried hard. Our execution ultimately offensively inside the 30 became the real story of the game.”
Haskins said: “I think as a unit we just have some execution things we need to clean up. I know that we’re a capable unit. We all believe in each other, we believe in our game plan, we believe in everything we’re doing. I think it just comes down to execution and maintaining our focus and our ability to finish drives.
“Our goal as an offense is to score a touchdown on every drive, especially when we’re in the red zone. So any time we don’t come away with a touchdown, we know we have things to improve on and we know that on that drive we haven’t met the goal.”
Virginia’s offensive line, which includes no seniors, allowed eight sacks against Notre Dame and five against Miami. It’s also been unable to consistently open holes for the running backs. The Cavaliers rank last among ACC teams in rushing.
Still, Haskins said, the line hasn’t lost confidence in itself.
“We see ourselves as a group of brothers,” he said. “We’re all very close, and we really come together in moments like that and lean on each other. We know we’re capable, we believe in each other, and we know that we can step up and get the job done for the team.”
Virginia has won four straight over Duke, whose head coach, David Cutcliffe, is one of Mendenhall’s closest friends in the profession.
“He’s doing something very unique at a place that has a lot of reasons to say that it couldn’t be done,” Mendenhall said. “He’s doing it anyway. So I have a lot of respect for him … Their culture is vibrant and very similar [to UVA’s]. It lines up to be a really challenging game.”