Virginia football may be off this week, but in no way are the Cavaliers taking it easy.
“The same things that helped us improve to this point are still in place,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said on his Coach’s Corner radio show on September 4. “The same tempo, the same type of coaching, the same urgency, the same demands in terms of effort. The bye term doesn’t mean much in terms of the quest to get better.”
Senior center Jackson Matteo notes that this bye week is a much different experience from what he is used to. Practices remain intense with execution, individual work on focus and intensity, and work on the fundamentals some of the key elements.
The bye week gives those injured Cavaliers a chance to heal in time for what will be a huge 3-game home stand beginning with Pittsburgh on October 15. For those players able to play, though, they are more than happy to continue to put in the effort required from Mendenhall and his staff.
“We won the last two games because we prepared so well,” senior linebacker Zach Bradshaw said. “We want to take full advantage of the extra week heading into Pitt.”
Simple and Effective
So what was the difference for the Virginia defense in its breakout performance in the 34-20 win over Duke? There may be a simple answer.
Following last Saturday’s win in Durham, Coach Mendenhall noted that the defense ran “the simplest plan we had yet.”
Bradshaw estimated the defense ran “maybe 10 plays” all game long.
“We ran one of our calls 14 times,” the senior linebacker said.
If simplicity was the key, it paid off big-time. Virginia’s defense intercepted Duke redshirt freshman quarterback David Jones five times, sacked him twice, and recovered a Jones fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. The latter score put the Hoos up by two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter.
“Simplifying the defense helps you play fast,” Bradshaw said.
“It was a combination of hustling and being in the right spot, and the ball rolled our way,” Bradshaw said.
Andrew Brown Update
UVA played the entire second half against Duke without one of its best defensive players, junior defensive end Andrew Brown. Brown, who has totaled 19 tackles including 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks so far this season, left the Duke game in the first half with an apparent shoulder injury.
Coach Mendenhall discussed Brown’s status in his weekly ACC teleconference on October 5.
“So we’re practicing physically, and so this is not an off week, necessarily, for us in terms of what practices look like. If anything, it’s ramped up,” Mendenhall said.
“So I’ll just simply say without disclosing too much that Andrew has not been able to practice to this point. Where he’ll fit for the upcoming game, I’m not certain yet. So that’s really as much information as I can pass on now.”
Should the Cavaliers have to go without Brown for an extended period of time, how will that impact what Mendenhall wants to do on defense?
“Without Andrew I have to be much more intentional and much more specific about when I call things and why I call things because our chance to get pressure with a four-man rush or even three-man rush is greatly decreased when Andrew’s not in there,” Mendenhall said.
“So it really becomes much more clear the intent of the call has to be specific to the play, which means my margin for error as the play caller goes down when Andrew’s not in.”
Hard Work Paying Off for Bryce Hall
True freshman cornerback Bryce Hall was a major player in UVA’s victory, coming through with two interceptions and a pass breakup while playing most of the game opposite sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill. While he had played in all four previous games, the Duke game was his opportunity to shine.
Hall was ready for the big stage and there is a reason why he was ready. Mendenhall noted that the talented first year is always asking defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Nick Howell to stay after practice for extra work. And between class breaks, Hall can be found watching current film as well as film of the NFL’s best players.
Mendenhall describes Hall as having a “passion for learning” that enables him to be ready to succeed when his chance arises.
Hall played both wide receiver and defensive back for one of Pennsylvania’s top high school football programs, Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt. The Virginia coaches considered playing him at wide receiver but ultimately settled on cornerback given the need for depth at the position. The move was a good one, as Virginia has taken several hits on the cornerback depth chart including losing senior starter Tim Harris for the year. Thornhill, Hall, and redshirt freshman Kareem Gibson are the main players in the cornerback rotation as of now.
– Mendenhall continues to note the hunger of this team to have a great season and become a great team and program. The players have worked and continue to work outside of practice to improve.
“Players have chosen to take every opportunity to get better,” he said on his radio show. “There is more work to go. It’s fun to see how much they are improving.”
– Bradshaw on first year outside linebacker Jordan Mack – “First of all, he is a really humble kid. He came in as a safety. He thought he was playing safety. A week before the first game the [coaches said they] want to switch him to outside linebacker. He’s undersized but stepped up and did what they asked him to do. He’s a quiet kid. He’s always where he needs to be, whether it’s on or off the field. He has a lock next to Micah and myself. Great kid.”
– Apparently it is becoming a tradition to pour Mountain Dew on Mendenhall’s head following a victory. It started against Central Michigan and more players took part in the celebratory act following the Duke game. Mendenhall joked on his radio show that his hair may be taking yellowish lime turn.