The Virginia football team controls the ACC Coastal Division late into October.
Four years ago, Bronco Mendenhall’s squad was embarrassed by Richmond in his first game as the head coach. He hadn’t built his program yet, and there wasn’t a winning culture within the locker room.
The season ended with a 2-10 record after the Cavaliers were dismantled by Virginia Tech, losing 52-10. Fast-forward to Saturday’s game against Duke, and the Virginia football program looks light years apart from the 2016 version of itself.
Fans, players and coaches were disappointed the team didn’t beat Notre Dame and Miami in the past two games. After being demolished by an FCS team in Mendenhall’s first season, the UVa program isn’t the same in 2019.
“We have a lot of goals that we are after, not only for this season, but for the future of the program,” Mendenhall said. “Our team expects to win. They’re not surprised when they do, and they’re actually mad when they don’t now. That’s a completely different place than where this program was. I’m not saying we’ve arrived. But the mindset has shifted to where they expect to win and they want to win and they know when they make mistakes … That bothers them.”
Adding to the sting of an error-filled 17-9 loss to Miami was senior cornerback Bryce Hall going down with a season-ending injury against the Hurricanes. The loss also knocked UVa out of the AP Top 25. The Cavaliers faced a crucial division clash Saturday against Duke after facing adversity, and they responded with a 48-14 victory to grab control of the Coastal Division.
“It was really important that we came back and we did what we did for the team, for Bryce, really to show that we are a good team in the ACC,” Virginia safety Joey Blount said. “These past two games we’ve not been playing our best football. We just came out, and you really saw the UVa football we’ve always been talking about.”
UVa preached all week that it wouldn’t change its game plan with Bryce Hall out. Despite losing a senior leader and projected first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the coaches and players had faith in De’Vante Cross. The junior delivered with a pair of pass breakups and solid overall play at the corner spot.
Overall team depth has improved since Mendenhall arrived in Charlottesville, and that was evident in the team’s dominant defensive performance against a Duke team that was averaging over 40 points per game against teams not named Alabama. Losing one of the best corners in the country didn’t stop a team coming off consecutive losses from rebounding in a resounding way.
In 2017, Mendenhall’s second season, Virginia faded down the stretch. The Cavaliers dropped six of their final seven games and finished 6-7.
In 2018, Virginia went 1-3 in November with a pair of overtime losses. It erased an early deficit at Virginia Tech before squandering a 31-24 lead late in the final quarter and losing in overtime.
The Cavaliers are determined to end the 2019 season on a different note. They’re learning how to win at a high level, and the pressure rises with four conference wins standing between Virginia and a Coastal Division title.
“They do a great job instilling confidence in us,” Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden said of the coaches. “Week in, week out, we think we can go in and compete with anyone. Now I think it’s more kind of handling the exterior pressure of trying to win games.”
With Virginia the clear Coastal Division favorite, at least heading into this week’s game at Louisville, the outside expectations grow. For a program that had few expectations four years ago, that’s a tremendous sign of growth.
UVa faces a program-defining month ahead.
The Cavaliers’ win over Duke eases the pain of the Miami loss, and the Coastal Division is in their control. It’s up to Virginia to take that control and parlay it into the first division title in school history.