Bronco Mendenhall’s time at Virginia has led to this moment.
When Mendenhall took the UVa job, he had his work cut out for him. That was evident after a 2-10 season to start his tenure that saw the Cavaliers lose 37-20 to Richmond in his first game as the team’s head coach.
“This is a really clear indicator of the amount of work that lies ahead, the amount of work I need to put in to help these particular players who will do what I ask them to do,” Mendenhall said after the Richmond loss. “To help these particular players be in the best positions possible to play the game execution sound, physical, and fast and confidently. And there is a long way to go in those areas.”
Virginia worked hard to improve. Mendenhall implemented a new culture within the program and added talented recruits, including JUCO transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins. The result is a team that’s in the thick of the ACC title race.
The Cavaliers (8-3, 5-2 ACC) host Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2) on Friday with an ACC Coastal Division championship on the line.
“Lots of hard work, not only from fall camp this season to get to this point, but since our arrival at the University of Virginia,” Mendenhall said. “I’m really proud of the work our team has put in. I’m pleased with the progress they’re making. I like the maturity and how they’re going about their business. I like the opportunity they’ve earned to compete all the way to the very last game of the season, regular season, for the Coastal championship.”
Friday’s game offers an opportunity for Virginia to take another step as a program. A win takes the Cavaliers from the bottom of the ACC in 2016 to the top of the Coastal division in 2019. A victory also ends a 15-game losing streak against Virginia Tech and keeps the Hokies out of the ACC Championship Game.
Friday’s game carries weight across the commonwealth.
Despite the importance for both teams, it’s still just a football game. The team that plays the best on both sides of the ball and limits mistakes will emerge victorious. The rivalry and stakes generate added hype for this matchup, but the philosophies of both teams remain the same.
“The thing about competition, rivalries and all that sort of stuff is that when you’re in it, it still comes down to execution,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “There’s emotion involved and there’s all the things that come with big games, but it still comes down to preparation and execution and being able to focus on being able to do your job on a consistent basis regardless of the circumstances.”
At its core, Friday is about executing well on offense, defense and special teams. On paper, that sets up for a thriller.
Virginia averages 33.3 points per game, while the Hokies average 31. Virginia Tech holds opponents to 22.3 points per game, while UVa holds opponents to 22.9. The Hokies average 381.4 yards per game and the Cavaliers average 381. The two squads feature identical records on the season, including matching 5-2 marks in ACC play.
Both teams feature dual-threat quarterbacks playing at high levels. Perkins has 10 total touchdowns and no turnovers in the past three games. He’s averaging 361 total yards per game over the past three contests, and he’s completing 69% of his passes during that span.
Hendon Hooker is 6-0 as Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback, and he has 16 total touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s playing extremely well, and his rushing ability makes him tough to defend and dangerous in play-action situations.
“It’s very difficult to argue against the results, because they just win when he’s playing quarterback, Mendenhall said. “He’s really doing a nice job, as well as the coaches designing things that fit the capabilities that their quarterback has.”
On defense, the Hokies have posted consecutive shutouts. Virginia, on the other hand, has scored 30 points or more in three consecutive games against FBS teams for the first time since Mendenhall’s first season in 2016.
The statistics suggest Friday’s clash should be tight. Both teams possess solid defenses. Both teams love their quarterbacks. Both teams desperately want to play for an ACC championship.
It all comes down to Friday.
Virginia’s program has steadily trended upward since a rocky start to Mendenhall’s tenure. The Cavaliers have matched last season’s win total of eight. They’ve reached the same standard set last season, and the final games of the season offer a chance to surpass those previous standards.
“We have it pasted around our meeting rooms: Be greater than, not equal to,” linebacker Jordan Mack said. “So each and every single year, we just work hard to improve from what the last class and the guys have built that came before us, build upon that each and every single year. So slowly just work hard and do what we have to do to leave the program better than we found it.”
Mack and the Cavaliers have already found more success than when they arrived in Charlottesville. With a win Friday, they reach historic levels of success by winning their first ACC Coastal Division crown and ending 15 years of losing to the Hokies.
Mendenhall and the Cavaliers worked hard to reach this moment. The fourth-year head coach frequently talks about the program “arriving.”
The biggest moment in Mendenhall’s tenure has arrived.
It’s up to the Cavaliers to take advantage of it.