By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In three-plus seasons under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, UVA’s football team has recorded several significant road victories, including wins at Duke in 2016, at Boise State and North Carolina in 2017, and at Pitt this year.
For the Cavaliers to reach their goals, however, they know they must win away from Scott Stadium more consistently. UVA’s record in road and neutral games during Mendenhall’s tenure is 7-15.
“That is part of sustainability and consistency at the highest level within your conference and in college football,” Mendenhall said Monday during his weekly press conference at John Paul Jones Arena. “It starts with claiming your own space, and we’re becoming much more consistent and much more dynamic and fairly formidable at home.”
Virginia (5-2, 3-1), which leads the ACC’s Coastal Division, closes the regular season with three straight home games: Nov. 9 against Georgia Tech, Nov. 23 against Liberty, and Nov. 29 against Virginia Tech.
“Our thought process is, ‘We do not lose at home,’ ” sophomore offensive lineman Ryan Nelson said Monday, “and that’s something we always talk about: ‘This is our house. We’re not gonna lose in it.’ “
The Wahoos are 4-0 at home this season and have won 13 of their past 17 games at Scott Stadium. Before hitting the homestretch, though, UVA plays at Louisville (4-3, 2-2) and at UNC (3-4, 2-2).
“This is a great test for us to go back-to-back on the road now,” said Mendenhall, who in December 2015 took over a program that had dropped 15 consecutive road games.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game to be aired on ACC Network, Virginia meets Louisville at 60,800-seat Cardinal Stadium. A win would move the Hoos, who are 0-3 all-time in that city, closer to their first appearance in the ACC championship game.
“For this year’s team, for us to win the Coastal Division, for us to take another step in advancing our program, for us to be a contender on the national scale, for us to remain building and having the unbroken growth that we’re after, you have to play well regardless of where, when and how you’re scheduled,” Mendenhall said.
Junior defensive back De’Vante Cross agreed. “At the end of the day, it’s the same game no matter where you play it.”
The Cavaliers opened the season with an impressive victory over Coastal rival Pitt at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, where they had never won. Three straight home wins followed –– over William & Mary, Florida State and Old Dominion –– before Virginia ventured out again and lost 35-20 to then-No. 10 Notre Dame on Sept. 28.
Then came the first of the Hoos’ two bye weeks, after which they traveled to Miami Gardens, Florida, and lost 17-9 to Coastal rival Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. Virginia bounced back from that disappointing performance with a 48-14 rout of Duke at Scott Stadium on Saturday.
“Everyone got their confidence back and everyone’s back on track,” senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois said Monday.
“I feel as though with this game coming up, it’ll show that the last two road games weren’t really us. We squandered some opportunities and we left some on the field.”
The Cavaliers, like most teams, have “to execute at a higher level and be more consistent and more mature to handle road environments,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve proved that we are capable of doing that with the season opener against Pitt, and the formula for winning that game was very similar to our formula for beating Duke.
“There was a special teams play that impacted the game. There were turnovers that impacted the game. Field position was in our favor. And so it might not be so much about where we’re playing, it’s just how we’re playing and what that formula looks like.
“That formula worked very well for the first half against Notre Dame, but not the second half. So I think it’s becoming clearer how we play well and what gives this team its best chance to win. Now, executing consistently regardless of circumstance, home or away, that is the next challenge.”
Virginia, which finished 2-10 in 2016, improved to 6-7 in 2017 and to 8-5 last season. Despite that progress, not until this year has attendance at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium started to rise again.
UVA, which averaged 39,705 at home games in 2018, drew 57,826 for Florida State and 52,847 for Duke this season.
“We love the energy,” Nelson said. “We love the noise.”
So does Mendenhall, who noted the “changes that are happening in Scott Stadium, with the way that we’re supported and how vibrant the fan base is and how exciting it’s becoming. There’s a noticeable difference, and our players, really, they can’t wait to play at home.”
Football teams are typically divided into three units: offense, defense and special teams. In Mendenhall’s program, the players on the sideline and, at Scott Stadium, the fans in the stands make up what’s known as the Fourth Side.
“Our student section has done a great job this year of being the Fourth Side,” Ryan Nelson said, “and the Fourth Side being as energetic as it is now is a great thing for being at home. Other places have their own versions of that, but being able to go on the road and win, that’s something that we always want to do, and that’s something we love to do. Because when you go there and you hear a loud stadium to start off and it starts getting quieter and quieter, you really feel like you’re taking the soul out of the team.”
TOUGH ASSIGNMENT: Cross was asked Monday if he feels sorry for opposing defensive backs trying to cover Dubois, who has 36 receptions for 489 yards and two touchdowns this season. At 6-3, 215 pounds, Dubois is a big target and excels at catching the ball in traffic.
“I don’t know what they’re supposed to do, honestly,” Cross said. “It’s getting ugly out there. Somebody might want to put a body on him at this point. I don’t know. They’ve got to figure that one out.”
Cross smiled. “He’s annoying, because you can cover him, you can be all over him if you really want to be, but it’s not really going to do much for you. You’ve got to play the ball in the air. If he gets a hand on it, he’s going to catch it. I haven’t really seen him drop too many balls unless it’s pass interference, and even then he’s going to probably still catch it. The thing about him, you can’t let him box you out, you can’t let him use his body. You’ve got to just get to the ball before he does. That’s your only hope, to be honest.”
OFF AND RUNNING: With an average of 39.4 yards per kickoff return, UVA senior Joe Reed ranks second nationally behind Utah State’s Savon Scarver (43.4). Against Duke, Reed had two returns, the first for 43 yards and the second for 95 yards and a touchdown.
“Every time [opponents] kick the ball and it’s not out of the end zone,” Dubois said, “I just scream out, ‘Why are you kicking it to him?’ … They learned their lesson. He’s very electrifying back there, so whoever decides to kick to him is going to learn the hard way.”
Reed is the only player in FBS history to have totaled more than 2,700 career yards on kickoff returns with an average of at least 28 yards per return. With five kickoff returns for TDs, he holds the all-time record at UVA.
STEP FORWARD: Its offensive line’s struggles contributed heavily to UVA’s losses at Notre Dame and Miami, but the group, which has no seniors, performed better against Duke.
“I guess you could say we looked internally after all that criticism,” said Nelson, a redshirt sophomore who started at tackle in 2018 and is now at guard. “So we took the criticism, we took the coaching, and we knew that something needed to change. And playing offensive line, you can’t rely on someone else to do it. You have to do it yourself. So all of us banded together and went, ‘All right, we need to get this done. We’re going to run the ball. It’s not all right we can’t run the ball. We’re going to run the ball.’ We needed to make it happen and we made it happen.”
In addition to meeting daily with their position coach, Garett Tujague, Nelson said, the offensive linemen have been getting together on their own at the McCue Center.
“So we’ll just come in later in the day, or even after Coach has already left our normal meetings,” Nelson said, “and we’ll sit in there for an extra 30 minutes, maybe an hour, go through film, what we see, what we need to do better as a unit and just how we feel, like where we’re at now and where we should be.”
Asked how much time he spends in the O-line room, Nelson smiled. “If I could put a bed in there, I would.”