By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– From the day Bronco Mendenhall took over as the University of Virginia’s head football coach in December 2015, his goal has been what he calls “unbroken growth,” and his program continues to trend in a positive direction.
There were signs of progress in 2016, Mendenhall’s first season at Virginia, even if they weren’t reflected in the team’s record (2-10). A foundation was laid as the program’s culture improved, and the Cavaliers’ core, led by linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, embraced Mendenhall’s earned-not-given philosophy.
In 2017, the Wahoos advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years, and in 2018 they contended for the ACC’s Coastal Division title. The Hoos stumbled late in the regular season but rebounded to beat South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl, their first postseason victory in 13 years.
Virginia’s fourth season under Mendenhall has produced another step forward. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, No. 22 UVA (9-3) meets No. 3 Clemson (12-0) in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. ABC will televise the game.
“We’ve made great strides,” UVA defensive lineman Eli Hanback said on a Monday teleconference. “They have been fast if you look at that across the board.”
The Atlantic Division champion Tigers are accustomed to playing on this stage. They’re seeking their fifth straight ACC title and have won two of the past three national championships.
For Virginia, this is uncharted territory. The Hoos defeated Virginia Tech 39-30 on Friday at Scott Stadium –– their first win in the series since 2003 –– to clinch their first Coastal title and advance to their first ACC championship game.
“We always talk about unbroken growth in this program,” senior quarterback Bryce Perkins said Monday. “Just think about last year, how close we were to actually winning the [Coastal] and beating [Virginia] Tech. We felt we had the talent and the will last year. We just had to keep it going, keep improving from the mistakes from last year to this year.
“It wasn’t perfect this year. We had a couple ugly losses. The way we fought back, the way that we were resilient, is right on line with the program’s growth and the program’s culture that Coach built these past years.”
On Monday afternoon, the ACC honored Perkins as its quarterback of the week for his performance against the Hokies. (UVA sophomore Noah Taylor, who intercepted two passes Friday, was named the ACC’s linebacker of the week.)
Perkins, who transferred to Virginia from an Arizona junior college after the 2017 season, passed for 311 yards and rushed for 164 against Virginia Tech. He had a hand in eight plays that gained at least 30 yards, including touchdown runs of 39 and 67 yards. Perkins also threw a 25-yard TD pass to sophomore wide receiver Billy Kemp IV.
“I would say you underestimate him at your own risk,” Mendenhall said Sunday when asked about Perkins.
Clemson safety Tanner Muse watched the UVA-Virginia Tech game and, not surprisingly, came away impressed by Perkins.
“It was really special to watch just because he’s such a dynamic player. He did a great job executing their plan,” Muse said Monday. “It will be really tough to stop him, but we’re going to give it our best shot … We haven’t really played anybody like him. We’re really excited about it.”
For all of his athletic ability, Perkins is above all “a great leader,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday. “You just see that in him. He plays with an incredible will to win. He has this belief to him … He’s one of those guys that makes everybody around him better.”
Long gone are the days when the ACC consisted of nine schools, each of which played all eight of its counterparts every football season. The only Atlantic Division team UVA faces every season is its crossover partner, Louisville. Virginia and Clemson haven’t met since 2013.
They had four common opponents during the regular season: Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State and Louisville.
“There isn’t a true point of reference, not having crossed over, but there are teams that they have played that we have played,” Mendenhall said Sunday. “One step removed, there is some relevance there.”
Overall, though, preparation for this game “certainly is a challenge,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t have any experience against Clemson or Coach Swinney or really any of their existing players. So at that point the focus certainly has to be really more on your own scheme, your own strategy, your own execution, your own position mastery, mindset, everything that you can control.”
Virginia’s players had time Saturday to check out the TV broadcast of Clemson’s annual clash with arch-rival South Carolina. (The Tigers romped 38-3.)
“I watched a little bit of the game,” Hanback said. “There was a lot of good games on, and I was kind of flipping around … A lot of us have already started watching film on them to get ready to play this weekend. That’s one of the big things that goes into preparation, film study. It’s something you have to be locked in on and ready to go.”
Another Cavalier, junior linebacker Charles Snowden, said he’s “very familiar with [the Tigers], kind of from a fan perspective. I haven’t necessarily watched them too much as an opponent, [in an] X’s and O’s type manner. I have a sense of what they like to do, their style of play, their tempo, their culture.Now I’m looking forward to getting into their scheme, what they’re trying to attack, their strengths and weaknesses.”
The Tigers have won 27 straight games and lead the ACC in scoring offense (45.3 points per game) and scoring defense (10.1 ppg).
“Opportunities like this don’t happen every day,” Snowden said. “To go up against the reigning national champs, ACC champs, it’s a great opportunity. You’re not going to find better talent than this in the country.”
The Cavaliers’ mindset?
“We’re going at it with no fear,” Snowden said. “We’ve had a great season so far. We’re just looking to build on that. We’re going to give it our best foot forward … and let the chips fall where they may.”
For Mendenhall, the process has been a rewarding one. He left BYU, where he compiled a record of 99-43 in 11 seasons as head coach, to take on a rebuilding project in Charlottesville.
“I came to the University of Virginia because I like hard things, doing hard things,” Mendenhall said. “I chose this job because I crave building and developing and growing. The harder the better.
“There hasn’t been one easy step or one easy game in the past four years for our program. But the players have earned this chance in the time frame they’ve earned it. It just seems fitting … What else would we rather be doing? If you ask myself or my team, there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing. The bigger, the harder the challenge, the more we like it. This just happens to be one of the biggest and hardest.”