By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Eight days after Virginia lost to Miami at Hard Rock Stadium last month, another ACC football team won there. Georgia Tech scored a touchdown in the final minute to force overtime against the Hurricanes and left with a 28-21 victory.
The Yellow Jackets did what the Cavaliers could not, Mandy Alonso noted Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. And that’s among the reasons, the junior defensive lineman said, that UVA (6-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) won’t be overconfident heading into its clash with Georgia Tech (2-6, 1-4) on Saturday.
“Obviously, they’re doing something well over there,” Alonso said.
For the Jackets, such highlights have been elusive this season. Georgia Tech, which ran the triple option under head coach Paul Johnson, is in its first season under Geoff Collins, who favors a more conventional offense, and the transition has been far from seamless.
Still, the Jackets “have athletes, obviously, at the quarterback position,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and I like their running game. It’s creative and effective … I like their running backs. I think they’re physical, I think they’re tough, I think they run hard. I think their team plays hard.”
For UVA, which opened the season with a win at Pitt, its loss at Miami was part of a stretch that included three road defeats. That skid ended Saturday night at Kenan Stadium, where Virginia beat North Carolina 38-31 to take sole possession of first place in the Coastal Division.
The Cavaliers headed to Chapel Hill, N.C., wanting “to demonstrate that we were capable and could win again on the road before we came home,” Mendenhall said. “And that became really important, not only for the team but our program.”
Three regular-season games remain for the Wahoos, and all are at Scott Stadium, where they’re 4-0 this year. The homestretch starts Saturday with a 12:30 game against Georgia Tech. The Hoos, who are off the following weekend, host Liberty on Nov. 23 and Virginia Tech on Nov. 29.
Victories over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech would clinch its first Coastal title –– and a berth in next month’s ACC championship game –– for UVA, which is in its fourth season under Mendenhall.
“So glad to be at home now for closing it out,” he said. “And if you frame it basically as a playoff race, home-field advantage is something that we have for the remainder of the way, which gives us as good a shot as anyone to finish the way we would like to.”
The Hoos contended for the Coastal Division title in 2018 before closing the regular season with back-to-back road losses, each in overtime. Virginia fell 30-27 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and 34-31 to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
“Feedback is always a gift,” Mendenhall said. “If applied correctly, then you can move forward. I think what we learned from the race a year ago in this setting was that ACC road games are hard to win. They come down to last drives, they come down to overtime, they come down to critical stops, they come down to critical scores, which is just what we saw last week [at UNC] … And I would expect each of our ACC games remaining to be just like that.”
Attendance at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium was often disappointing during Mendenhall’s first three seasons at UVA, but there are clear signs of progress on that front. Virginia is averaging 50,124 at home games this fall.
“For me it’s really exciting,” redshirt junior safety Chris Moore said, “just because I was here Coach Mendenhall’s first year, when we were 2-10, and there was basically no one there.”
Junior offensive guard Chris Glaser said: “I think playing in front of our crowd is amazing. The turnout that they’ve brought out and the noise that they’ve brought to our home games is amazing.”
The support figures to be crucial this month for a UVA team whose secondary has been ravaged by injuries and medical issues. Since the start of training camp in early August, Virginia has lost four defensive backs for the season: Darrius Bratton, Germane Crowell, Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson. Also unavailable against UNC were two key reserves, cornerback Heskin Smith and safety Antonio Clary, who are out this weekend, too.
Redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker, who had rarely played before Saturday, started at cornerback against UNC, and true freshman Tenyeh Dixon saw time at safety.
Defensive coordinator Nick Howell, who’s also Virginia’s secondary coach, is “working overtime and looking to staff the back end appropriately and the best way possible for each opponent that we’re going to play,” Mendenhall said.
In part because of its inexperienced secondary, UVA gave up 539 yards against UNC. But on a night when senior quarterback Bryce Perkins finished with a school-record 490 yards of total offense, the Cavaliers gained 517. Perkins was named the ACC’s quarterback of the week Monday.
“Bryce’s game, I think, reflected what he’s capable of,” Mendenhall said, “and what we certainly would love to see down the stretch and most likely what we’ll need to see down the stretch to help us finish out the Coastal playoff race, as we’re calling it.”
For much of the season, Virginia’s offensive line has struggled to open holes for and protect Perkins, who’s been slowed by a knee injury, but its play has improved markedly in recent weeks.
“This weekend is what we should have been doing this whole time,” Glaser said. “Once we do our job, we can see other guys start to excel so we kind of set the pace for the game. If we do bad, it doesn’t leave options open for other guys to really excel.”
Mendenhall said: “Bryce had a lot of time and appropriate time to throw and deliver the ball effectively. He was not under duress consistently. When he was, he scrambled effectively and delivered the ball more appropriately on time or eluded pressure. And so it was just a nice step in the right direction … and it was really nice to win a football game that way.”
His players traveled to Chapel Hill in an ideal frame of mind, Mendenhall said, and he’s not expecting a letdown Saturday, regardless of Georgia Tech’s record.
“Every win matters,” Mendenhall said, “and all the North Carolina game did was make this one more important than even that one. The players, the reason they labeled it that way is they want to win the Coastal Division, they want a chance to compete for the ACC championship, they want to move the program forward, they want this team to do something the previous three teams haven’t done. They’re anxious to grow and expand the program and they realize the time frame and the margin for error that they have. So I would be very surprised if they don’t label this game the very same way they just did the last one, and rightly so.”
Alonso said: “We still have to prove ourselves. We still need to earn our way to the top.”