CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia had faced games like this before.
The Cavaliers were heading on the road while positioned in the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal Division. A win and the Cavaliers effectively step on the gas pedal and start pulling away from the pack. A loss and the standings become even more of a jumbled mess.
Against Miami, UVa faltered. The Cavaliers scored nine points and stunk offensively. Against Louisville, Virginia once again failed to move the football and lost on the road to a middle-of-the-pack ACC opponent.
Saturday night against North Carolina told a different story.
Virginia took the top down, shifted the car into sport mode and slammed the pedal to the ground. The Cavaliers tallied 311 yards in the loss to Miami and 318 yards against Louisville. They racked up 517 in the win over UNC, including 382 yards in the second and third quarters combined.
“We’ve expected to produce,” offensive lineman Ryan Nelson said, “and we finally produced today.”
Bryce Perkins looked like the 2018 version of Bryce Perkins, throwing the ball accurately and rushing dynamically. He finished with 490 total yards of offense. Only NFL quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Lamar Jackson have ever accounted for more against North Carolina.
The defense struggled with many injured starters not on the field, but it hunkered down to force two critical incompletions in the fourth quarter. After scoring 14 points in both the second and third quarters, UVa allowed no fourth-quarter points.
“It was a big challenge for us,” defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “In the huddle, we told ourselves to bow up, and we decided to get a stop.”
Instead of a somber press conference and a disappointed locker room, players grinned and shared excitement for the bus trip home.
Virginia controls the ACC Coastal Division, and the Cavaliers are bowl eligible for the third consecutive season.
“When I was lucky enough to get this job, and my staff came, we wanted the postseason to be normal at UVa,” Mendenhall said. “We wanted it to be, ‘That’s just what happens with UVa football.’ It’s gratifying now for that to happen another year. Just another sign of the program becoming healthier.”
There’s no denying Virginia’s flaws. It’s a three-loss team with an inconsistent offense and a defense that has lost key contributors to injury on a weekly basis. It’s not a perfect team, but it’s important to remember where this team was in Mendenhall’s first season.
Richmond bludgeoned the Cavaliers when Mendenhall first came to town. Virginia is one win — and some help — away from clinching the Coastal Division. It’s been a steady rise for a program looking to become relevant on the national stage.
There’s no better way to become relevant than to contend for conference titles and consistently play nationally televised bowl games in December or January.
The team’s perspective has shifted, too. Players want to make bowl games, but they’re eyeing more.
“I feel we have a great chance playing Georgia Tech, Liberty and the team from down the road,” receiver Hasise Dubois said. “I feel as though we have really great chances, and we can win out, and we’ll see whoever is in from the Atlantic in the ACC Championship.”
Making the ACC title game isn’t a foregone conclusion, but the Cavaliers are close to reaching the checkered flag ahead of the ACC Coastal field and clinching a berth in the conference championship game.
Virginia is the only Coastal team to never win the division.
With two conference games left, including one against a 2-6 Georgia Tech team, Virginia hopes to keep the pedal down before pulling into its reserved parking spot in the ACC Championship Game for the first time in program history.