By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For the University of Virginia football team, the day after Thanksgiving will represent a rare opportunity. The Cavaliers can secure their first Coastal Division title, record a ninth regular-season win for the first time since 2007, and end a 15-game losing streak to Virginia Tech –– all before their fans at Scott Stadium.
“What more could we ask for?” senior wide receiver Joe Reed said Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
At noon Friday, the Wahoos (8-3 overall, 5-2 ACC) host the No. 23 Hokies (8-3, 5-2) in a Coastal clash that ABC will televise nationally. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, like most of UVA’s fan base, isn’t thrilled about the starting time, but he’s excited about the challenge facing his team.
This is Mendenhall’s fourth season at Virginia, and it’s been a steady climb for his program. In 2017, the Hoos advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years. In 2018, the Hoos entered November in contention for the Coastal title but were eliminated before the regular-season finale. An appearance in the ACC championship game remains a possibility for Virginia this season.
“The players have just done everything I’ve asked them to do to this point,” said Mendenhall, whose playoff beard is in its fourth week. “That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, doesn’t mean there’s not more to do, doesn’t mean we’ve reached the pinnacle. It just means progress –– progress every year, steady and unbroken. Each team is claiming their place to move the program forward.”
Virginia’s struggles in a series Tech leads 58-37-5 have been well-documented, and Mendenhall has acknowledged what he likes to call “brutal facts” to his team. But he doesn’t dwell on them and believes they’ll have no bearing on this year’s game.
This is all about 2019, Mendenhall said, “meaning that Virginia Tech’s ’19 team is playing the University of Virginia’s ’19 team. Anything beyond that is interference and not relevant to me. It’s this year, this team, this week, after clearly acknowledging what the record has been.”
UVA’s players have embraced that mindset. Senior linebacker Jordan Mack said Monday that blocking out the past is “very easy. It’s 2019 University of Virginia versus 2019 Virginia Tech. That’s the game we’re playing on Friday.”
In Blacksburg last season, an end to the streak seemed imminent late in the fourth quarter, but the Cavaliers failed to finish off the Hokies and suffered an excruciating defeat.
“Any loss hurts,” Reed said. “Any loss makes my stomach churn. It was a fun game. Great atmosphere. Just an unfortunate ending for us. Hopefully we’ll just get over the hump on Friday.”
UVA, which trailed 14-0 at halftime at Lane Stadium, rallied behind quarterback Bryce Perkins and wideouts Reed and Hasise Dubois. The Cavaliers led 31-24 with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, but the Hokies forced overtime with a series of improbable plays. Then, after Virginia held them to a field goal on the first series of OT, the Hokies escaped with 34-31 victory when Perkins lost a fumble.
“We haven’t talked about that since maybe the Monday after the game last year,” Reed said. “It’s one of those things, the nature of the sport. The thing about Bryce is he’s so mentally strong. He’s really good at getting over things and that’s what makes him a great quarterback really, just how resilient he is. So I’m sure it stung a little bit, but that’s past now.”
Each team will carry a three-game winning streak into the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup. For longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, this will be his final regular-season game with the Hokies, who are coming off shutouts of Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Mendenhall, a former defensive coordinator, said he’s “admired the results that [Foster’s] teams have gotten, for the sustainability, for being strong for that long. I think he’s had an exemplary career, remarkable results, and it’s really refreshing to see a coach find a place where he fits and has stayed and become kind of an identity of the institution in this world of free agency.”
Virginia Tech has been a different team since Hendon Hooker, a 6-4, 228-pound redshirt sophomore, became its No. 1 quarterback in early October. In nine games this season, Hooker has rushed for four touchdowns and passed for 10. He hasn’t thrown an interception.
“He’s very dynamic,” Mack said. “He can make the offense go, so we just have to focus in on our keys and our plays, and everyone has to execute their assignment.”
As the season has progressed, Mendenhall said, the Hokies’ “brand has become stronger … and their identity has become clearer [in terms] of how their offense, defense and special teams fit together.”
Asked about Hooker’s impact, Mendenhall said, “I think the record speaks for itself. As a starter, that’s really how quarterbacks are evaluated, right? Once they lead a team, what’s the record, what’s the outcome, the yield? It’s very similar for coaches. Once you have the position, what’s happened?
“It’s very difficult to argue against the results, because they just win when he’s playing quarterback.”
The Cavaliers’ quarterback has had a strong season, too. Perkins, who enrolled at UVA as a junior-college transfer in January 2018, is second in the ACC in total offense (287.4 yards per game). A knee injury hindered the 6-3, 215-pound senior for much of the season, but he’s rushed for nine TDs and passed for 15, with eight interceptions.
During their current winning streak, the Hoos have averaged 42 points per game.
“Our offensive line continues to improve and play more cohesively, effectively and simply better,” Mendenhall said. “That’s helped the improvement our offense has shown recently.”
Virginia is coming off a 55-27 win over Liberty at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers held their top running back, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa, out of the game with a nagging injury, but they “anticipate him being 100 percent this week,” Mendenhall said.
Reed, one of the nation’s return specialists, has been banged up, too, and the coaching staff has reduced his role on special teams in recent weeks.
“I’m feeling good right now,” Reed said Monday. “We’re trying to win the Coastal, so we know what’s at stake this week. We’re all just getting back to 100 percent.”
That’s not an option for three of the Cavaliers’ top defensive backs: Bryce Hall, Darrius Bratton and Brenton Nelson. Each is out with a season-ending injury, but their backups have “definitely stepped up,” said Mack, one of Virginia’s captains, along with Perkins and Hall.
“They had that next-man-up mentality, with each guy just embracing their role and knowing that no one’s going to come in and save them. So guys are taking on that role and doing what they need to do to hold down that secondary.”