As Virginia football fans continue to revel in three weeks of winning afterglow, the team got back to work this week as it prepares for the seven-week grind to end the season. UVA hosts three straight games in October before it hits the road for three of its final four games.
The Hoos decided not to take it easy this week. New coach Bronco Mendenhall insisted immediately after the game and in the days since that UVA needs to keep working in order to keep progressing in his first season.
“We’re practicing physically, and so this is not an off week, necessarily, for us in terms of what practices look like,” Mendenhall said. “If anything, it’s ramped up.”
Well, that certainly fits with what Virginia fans have learned about Mendenhall to this point. Beginning at his introductory press conference and throughout the offseason, he repeatedly emphasized hard work, high-level strength and conditioning demands, will development, and toughness both mentally and physically. Working hard through the season’s lone off week just represents the latest part of that narrative.
Still, much like Mendenhall and the coaches continue to get more familiar with the team and its players, fans continue to learn more about Virginia football under Mendenhall. What are some of the top things through the first five games of Mendenhall’s tenure? Let’s go through three ‘so far’ lists!
Top 3 Bronco Mendenhall Things For Virginia Football
1. Bronco Mendenhall will make mistakes … usually on the side of aggression. He’ll also admit it. We’ve seen this pop up throughout the first five games now. Some examples: a quarterback draw with no timeouts at Connecticut, a fake punt when leading near midfield at Duke, an overly ambitious defensive scheme in the opener, a fake field goal at Oregon, and going for two down 17 late against Richmond. He took the heat for all of those decisions, explained his reasoning, and focused on the next task.
The most recent one was that fake punt at Duke, which left the defense in a tough spot trying to protect a lead. The defense held up, but Mendenhall said that the defense rose to the occasion to cover up what turned out to be a bad call.
”Yeah, certainly wish I could have taken it back after it didn’t work, and second-guessing is absolutely fair when something doesn’t work. So I second-guessed myself,” Mendenhall said. “I really just thought it would be a time that Duke would not expect us to go for a fake punt. And momentum was switching back and forth. And I knew there was a huge risk. But I saw an opportunity that I thought we might hold on to and build momentum. We ended up having a player that was substituted on that play that aligned in correctly right at the point of attack, and that Duke adjusted to or helped Duke adjust really well. Man, they played it really, really well. Luckily our defense went out with smiles on their faces and a lot of confidence and embraced the challenge, which was one of the biggest parts of the game in managing that end of it. So I was really proud of them for the way they responded after a decision I made that didn’t work.”
Key part in there? “I knew there was a huge risk” … and took it anyway. Consistently aggressive so far.
2. His teams still might have penalty problems. BYU fans told Virginia fans that Mendenhall’s teams can have penalty issues. Over his final five seasons at BYU, the team ranked 63rd-tie, 73rd-tie, 114th, 125th, and 81st in penalty yards per game. The Cavaliers managed to go without a single penalty in the opener, but Mendenhall immediately said that maybe wasn’t a good thing because it may have been a sign of passivity and thinking too much. Since the flagless opener, UVA has drawn 31 flags (7.75 per game) and plummeted to 81st nationally in penalty yards per game. The good news? Many of those flags have not been for mental mistakes or no talent penalties like false starts, offsides, illegal formation, and so forth. The bad news? There have been some late hits out of bounds and unsportsmanlike flags.
3. This offense will pass more than it runs. So far this season, Virginia has attempted 201 passes and 153 rushes. That’s a 56.7% pass-43.3% run split. That’s much different than his final five seasons at BYU when the Cougars attempted more passes than runs just once. That came in his final season in 2015. The five-year average at BYU showed 528.6 rushes per season vs. 489.2 passes per season. That’s really close to a 50-50 split. Certainly, playing from behind throughout the first two games may have contributed to the numbers but even in the last three games when UVA held leads for much of the game, the distribution favored the pass. This is a case of playing to the team’s strengths – including swing passes and screen passes for the running backs – but it is something that stood out during the first five games.
Top 3 Plays Of The Virginia Football Season
1. Olamide Zaccheaus’ 82-yard touchdown catch against Central Michigan. This catch represented the longest touchdown catch at UVA in more than a decade (90-yarder from Deyon Williams in 2005) and the 13th longest in program history. That lands it in the top spot in my mind!
— UVA Sports Vines (@WahooVines) September 26, 2016
2. Jordan Mack sack. One week ago at Duke, true freshman linebacker Jordan Mack brought the thunder against QB Daniel Jones. His hit forced a fumble and led to a defensive touchdown for the Hoos. Earlier this season, Mack became the first UVA true freshmen to start a season opener at linebacker since Ahmad Brooks in 2003.
Gotta keep your head on a swivel. 👀 https://t.co/OYB4Rkh7qD
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 1, 2016
3. Taquan Mizzell delivers on the nickname Smoke. There are some contenders for this spot, including Keeon Johnson with a fourth down catch at UConn to keep a comeback drive alive and a leaping touchdown against Richmond. Last week, David Eldridge caught an 84-yard pass too. I’m going with Mizzell’s 52-yard touchdown against Central Michigan because it showed off his open-field skills that UVA fans want to see AND it featured Eric Smith sprinting downfield at 16 miles per hour to block!
— UVA Sports Vines (@WahooVines) September 28, 2016
Top 3 Stat Stuffers For Virginia Football
1. Kurt Benkert throws for 421 yards. With two of the season’s biggest plays highlighted above, it’s easy to pick this one for the stat stuffer’s top spot. Benkert set a new program record with 421 passing yards against Central Michigan. He also came up just one touchdown short of matching Dan Ellis’ record of 6 touchdown passes in a game. Benkert now has 1,455 yards on 119-of-199 passing with 13 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
2. Micah Kiser makes 18 tackles at Duke. The inside linebacker came up big in UVA’s first road win in nearly four years at Duke. He piled up 18 tackles, 2 pass breakups, and 2 quarterback hurries in the win. He proved huge in the fourth quarter as the Cavaliers made back-to-back fourth down stops with the Blue Devils driving. Kiser leads the team with 58 tackles on the season.
3. Nick Conte averages 48.0 yards per punt at Duke. One of the not-so-secret weapons on this team, Conte has delivered through the first five games. Against the Blue Devils, he uncorked a season-long 65-yard punt and landed two more kicks inside the 5-yard line. The second one of those set up the game-sealing Mack sack that led to a touchdown. For the season, he’s averaged 45.2 yards per punt and dropped 13 of his 27 kicks inside the 20. Opponents have only 5 returns all season thanks to his hang-time work.