By Jeff White (email@example.com)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. –– For the University of Virginia football team, a season that began on Aug. 31 will end almost exactly four months later. For only the second time in program history –– the first was in 2002 ––– the Cavaliers will play a 14th game, and they’ve encountered significant obstacles along the way.
UVA has three captains: quarterback Bryce Perkins, linebacker Jordan Mack and cornerback Bryce Hall, all seniors. Of that group, only Perkins will play Monday night when No. 24 Virginia (9-4) takes on No. 9 Florida (10-2) in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
After limping for weeks on a hurt ankle that kept him out of practice, Mack recently had surgery. Hall hasn’t played since Oct. 13, when he suffered a season-ending injury against ACC rival Miami at, coincidentally, Hard Rock Stadium.
“To make it to the 14th game with our existing roster …. it’s been a challenge,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Sunday during a press conference at which he joined his counterpart from Florida, Dan Mullen.
Since the start of training camp in early August, season-ending injuries have robbed the Wahoos of two of their top three inside linebackers (Mack and Rob Snyder) and three of their top five defensive backs (Hall, Brenton Nelson and Darrius Bratton).
In their 3-4 defense, the Cavaliers play two inside linebackers. Virginia’s options at that position against the Gators will be a junior (Zane Zandier) and two true freshmen (Nick Jackson and Josh Ahern). The attrition at inside linebacker and in the secondary has taxed the Hoos, but they’ve still managed to put together a memorable season.
In the Nov. 29 regular-season finale, UVA rallied to defeat Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium, ending a 15-game losing streak in that series and clinching the program’s first Coastal Division title.
Virginia’s first trip to the ACC championship game followed. The game didn’t go as the Hoos had hoped –– No. 3 Clemson romped 62-17 –– but their presence in Charlotte, N.C., was further evidence of the program’s growth under Mendenhall. And now the Cavaliers will play in a New Year’s Day Six bowl for the first time.
ESPN will televise the 8 p.m. game, which pits the Cavaliers against the Gators for the first time since 1959.
“I keep using the word ‘destination,’ ” Mendenhall said Sunday when asked for his thoughts on the Orange Bowl. “It means that you’ve arrived at a different stage in college football, at an elite and exceptional tier.”
Neither team lacks motivation. The Gators, in their second season under Mullen, are trying to finish with 11 wins for the first time in seven years and the eighth time in program history.
“To go from 10 wins to 11 wins is a huge step,” said Florida defensive lineman Kyree Campbell, who’s from Alexandria, Va. “Most people might think that’s easy, but to get that extra win is hard.”
And the Hoos?
“The University of Virginia has one 10-win season in 130 years of football,” said Mendenhall, who closed the press conference with that succinct statement.
For the Cavaliers, the Orange Bowl marks the midpoint of the toughest three-game stretch in program history. Clemson, which will play LSU for the national title next month, has won 29 straight games. Florida is a Southeastern Conference power, and Virginia will open the 2020 season against Georgia in Atlanta.
“The steps have been made methodically to get to this stage,” said Mendenhall, who came to UVA from BYU after the 2015 season. “We’re learning, we’re growing, we’re developing, but we’re also comparing and contrasting and learning with each of those games what parts of our program still need attention, not only to be able to arrive and play in those games,. but to win in them consistently.”
As challenging as these games may be, they’re essential if the Cavaliers are to become nationally prominent, Mendenhall said.
“As many of the games that we can play –– and we’ve earned the right to play in, on the stage that we’re currently in –– the faster the program accelerates,” Mendenhall said.
At BYU, Mendenhall guided his team to a bowl game in each of his 11 seasons as head coach. At UVA, he took over a struggling program, and there was no immediate turnaround.
In 2016, the Hoos finished 2-10. “That was a tough season,” tight end Tanner Cowley recalled Saturday.
In 2017, Virginia qualified for postseason play for the first time in six years, but lost 49-7 to Navy in the Military Bowl.
Mendenhall’s third season at UVA brought more progress, in no small part because of the addition of Perkins, who enrolled in January 2018 after spending the 2017 season at a junior college in Arizona.
“He’s the [player] that makes their offense go,” Florida linebacker David Reese II said.
With Perkins leading the way, Virginia finished 8-5 last season after routing South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. Not since 2011 had the Cavaliers posted an eight-win season, and they’ve surpassed that mark this year.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve continued to climb,” Cowley said, “because of the steps that [Mendenhall] puts in this program and how hard we work every day.”
Cowley is among the players who have been at UVA for each of Mendenhall’s four seasons.
“I think they deserve all the credit,” Mendenhall said. “I had them stand in the team meeting a few days ago before we left Charlottesville, and each one that stood, they’re the pioneers of this era of UVA football. Yeah, they were part of 2-10. They were part of … the first bowl game anyone on our roster had been to when we played against Navy. They were part of the win versus South Carolina last year, in that bowl game, and now they’re part of the Orange Bowl.”
Perkins said: “We know that this is not the ceiling for us. As a team, we know that our team and organization is built on unbroken growth.”
The Orange Bowl appearance is “a testament to our hard work throughout the summer, our hard work and transition from last year to this year, and the culture and the players who built and kind of set the platform when they first got here,” Perkins said.
In 1989, under Hall of Fame coach George Welsh, Virginia won a share of the ACC title and finished 10-3.
“To go out with 10 wins and be in that company would be great,” senior wide receiver Joe Reed said Saturday, “and just raise the bar for UVA football going forward.”
Cowley said: “It’s a huge opportunity for the program.”
An opportunity for the Cavaliers to capture their first outright ACC championship came early this month in Charlotte. UVA’s offense acquitted itself well against the Tigers, but its defense allowed 619 yards.
“The bottom line is we did not play well and we did not put our best foot forward,” Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell said Saturday.
Mendenhall said Sunday that the Cavaliers haven’t forgotten the Clemson game, and he doesn’t want them to.
“I don’t intend to put it behind us until we rectify any of the deficiencies that were exposed,” he said. “I intend to use it to leverage the program and moving forward every minute, every second until we become better … I don’t think master teachers or parents or anyone puts things behind them that they can still learn and grow from until every possible option has been exhausted from what we can learn from that. That allows people to grow and progress. So it’s one of the most valuable catalysts, I think, maybe ever that’s been had for the program in football at the University of Virginia.”