CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bronco Mendenhall loves a challenge.
When Virginia’s head coach came to Charlottesville in 2016, he quickly realized he faced a massive challenge in turning the Cavaliers into an ACC title contender.
He accepted the challenge with passion and a plan.
Powered by hard work and a talented JUCO transfer at quarterback, the Cavaliers have found unbroken growth under Mendenhall. They’ve embraced the challenge and improved upon their win total in each of Mendenhall’s four seasons, going from two wins in the first season to nine wins this season. The ACC Coastal Division champions face No. 3 Clemson on Saturday in arguably the toughest on-field challenge of Mendenhall’s coaching career.
“I came to the University of Virginia because I like hard things, doing hard things,” Mendenhall said. “I chose this job because I crave building and developing and growing. The harder, the better. There hasn’t been one easy step or one easy game in the past four years for our program. But the players have earned this chance in the timeframe they’ve earned it. It just seems fitting.”
Playing Clemson offers an incredible challenge.
The Tigers have won 27 consecutive games, and they’re outscoring opponents by an average of 35 points per game this season. Only North Carolina, which scored 20 points, has reached the 20-point threshold against the Tigers’ vaunted defense. Three Clemson opponents, including the last two teams to face the Tigers, have failed to score a touchdown in their losses to Dabo Swinney’s squad.
Beating Clemson takes an incredible effort, and it also requires the Tigers to be off their game. Clemson is well coached under Swinney and loaded with five-star recruits who play up to their talent level. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence could very well become the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and several other players will be drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Virginia’s roster isn’t cluttered with five-star prospects, but the Cavaliers understand Mendenhall’s football philosophy and play well as a team. Individual players on UVa were overlooked by most Power 5 schools, but the Cavaliers’ roster features several unheralded gems.
Charles Snowden, a starting linebacker for the Cavaliers, didn’t earn much interest from coaches during his high school days, but he’s developed into one of the more productive linebackers in the conference. The linebacker ranks third on the team in tackles for loss, fourth in tackles and fifth in sacks.
“I came in with only one scholarship offer at the University of Virginia,” Snowden said. “No other ACC schools thought I could play in the ACC. So now to have gone from that to being the champions of our division, to be able to play for an ACC championship, I just kind of look back and reflect, really appreciate how far I’ve come.”
Even Bryce Perkins, who posts eye-popping numbers on a weekly basis from the quarterback position, didn’t receive much attention when he transferred from Arizona State to Arizona Western Community College and then back to the FBS ranks. He caught the eye of Mendenhall, though.
Virginia’s head coach needed a player capable of dominating games to help his program reach new heights. He turned to Perkins.
Perkins visited Virginia and decided to come to the school. He’s now a second team All-ACC quarterback that led his team to a division title and the ACC Championship Game.
“We knew we had to have a quarterback that was dynamic, that could run and throw to make up for a talent deficit elsewhere,” Mendenhall said. “If we had been conventional, every other player would have to perform at a conventional level in comparison to components. We needed at least one player that was capable of helping others raise their play on what the demands of their job was. Thank goodness, but intentionally we found Bryce.
“And he needed us. Not many were interested in him, and we needed him, so it’s been a great fit.”
A great fit, indeed.
Perkins has moved his team up and down the field this season, especially the past four games with his team needing to win to keep its ACC title hopes alive. He accounted for 475 yards of total offense in the win over Virginia Tech. He’s been sensational in the final month of the season.
He faces the toughest test of his collegiate career Saturday against a stout Clemson defense.
The Tigers lead the nation in passing defense and passing efficiency defense. They allow an average of just 126.5 passing yards per game, and they’ve allowed an FBS-low six passing touchdowns on the season. For comparison, Perkins threw seven touchdown passes in the month of November.
“They’re great at causing havoc, getting pressure,” Perkins said. “One way or another, they’ll blitz this side and then they’ll blitz this side. It’s always making teams uncomfortable, making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the backfield, turnovers like that. They do a great job of causing havoc. We’re going to have to come in prepared and ready for it.”
Clemson enters Saturday’s game as a massive favorite. The Tigers are undefeated since the start of last season and loaded with NFL talent. Swinney has become one of the best coaches in college football, and his program rarely seems to falter.
Clemson is a challenge.
For a Virginia team comprised of overlooked recruits who have proved doubters wrong all season, a challenge is exactly what it wants.
“What else would we rather be doing?” Mendenhall said. “If you ask myself or my team, there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing. The bigger, the harder the challenge, the more we like it. This just happens to be one of the biggest and hardest. We’re really looking forward to it.”