In Year No. 4 of the Bronco Mendenhall era, the Virginia football team looks the part of an ACC contender.
The Cavaliers are 4-0 and 2-0 in the ACC after entering the season as the preseason favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division, and they’re ranked 18th in this week’s AP poll. The program earned a home win over Florida State, and No. 1 Clemson is the only ACC squad ranked above UVa.
Just three years ago, the Wahoos went 2-10 overall and 1-7 in ACC action. The Cavaliers have more ACC wins through September this year than it had in Mendenhall’s entire first season. It’s clear Virginia plays better than it did a few short years ago. There’s no doubt the Cavaliers are among the top few teams in the ACC, but how good are they?
Virginia has hit milestone after milestone under Mendenhall. From making its first bowl game since 2011 to winning its first bowl game since 2005, Virginia’s progress is evident. It’s a program on the rise, and the Cavaliers’ list of goals remains lengthy.
They want to win the division.
They want to beat Virginia Tech.
They want to put themselves among the nation’s elite.
Saturday’s matchup won’t affect UVa’s conference standing, but it will offer insights into just how much better this program is than it was in 2016, when Mendenhall took over.
“There are a lot of cool and positive things happening in [our] program,” Mendenhall said. “There will always be another metric and this is the next one. So Notre Dame is a very good team, national prominence, powerful name. We’re anxious to play.”
That seems to be the overarching theme this week.
Yes, it’s a chance to improve to 5-0. Yes, it’s another football game. In many ways, however, Virginia’s matchup with Notre Dame means so much more than your standard September football game.
It’s a chance to see where UVa stands among the nation’s top programs in Mendenhall’s fourth season.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge and also a huge opportunity for us not only as a team this year but just as a program going forward,” Eli Hanback said.
Hanback, a senior defensive tackle, brought up the program’s future. Even players who won’t be on the roster next year understand the significance of the game to what the Cavaliers are trying to build. UVa wants to take a step forward, and it has a chance to Saturday afternoon.
While the media attention surrounding Saturday’s game is intense, the Cavaliers’ focus remains the same. They need to execute against a top-10 team on the road to have a chance to win. Given UVa’s 4-0 record and top-20 ranking, the Fighting Irish aren’t overlooking the Cavaliers.
“If you look at the last couple of times now, they have been down in games, they have come back from deficits and won,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “So a confident team, a well-coached team, one that you’re going to have to beat them. They’re not going to give you the game.”
As Kelly mentioned, Virginia thrives in the second half. The Cavaliers rank 14th nationally in second-half scoring, averaging 19.7 points per game. They rank fourth nationally in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging an impressive 14 points across the final 15 minutes. They’ll need to avoid a slow start against Notre Dame, as the Fighting Irish sit 16th nationally in first-half scoring.
Time of possession is one area Virginia can take advantage of the highly ranked Irish. The Cavaliers rank 29th in time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 33 minutes per game. Against Old Dominion, UVa couldn’t sustain drives, and it possessed the ball for fewer than 25 minutes in arguably its worst performance of the season.
The Cavaliers struggled a bit against an Old Dominion team that likes to possess the football and ranks 14th nationally in time of possession. They never seemed to find an offensive rhythm in the first half and an early 17-0 deficit reflected as much. The fourth quarter looked better, but the Cavaliers still only finished the game with 244 total yards.
Luckily for Virginia, Notre Dame ranks 115th nationally in time of possession. The Irish’s time of possession standing ranks similarly to Florida State’s, and the Cavaliers were able to score touchdowns on each of their final three drives against a tired FSU defense.
If Virginia can stay close in the first half, the numbers suggest there’s an opportunity for the Cavaliers to find holes in the Notre Dame defense as the game progresses.
In its most recent loss to Georgia, the Fighting Irish were outscored 16-7 after halftime, and they lost the time of possession battle by nine minutes. During the second half, the Bulldogs scored points on four consecutive drives and three of those drives lasted at least seven plays.
Saturday offers Virginia an opportunity. A win elevates Virginia’s national standing. A good showing creates confidence heading into the bye week.
A competitive battle on Saturday with one of the most storied programs in college football history helps validate Mendenhall’s success.