Fresh off of two straight wins including the program’s first road win since November of 2012, cautious optimism was in the air as UVA football headed into the Pittsburgh game at Scott Stadium on October 15. Crucial turnovers, big plays, and overall inconsistency have plagued the Cavaliers ever since, resulting in six straight losses. Virginia, in its first year of the Bronco Mendenhall era, now owns a 2-9 overall record, 1-6 in the ACC, as it heads to Blacksburg November 26 for a noon matchup with Virginia Tech.
Mendenhall would certainly covet a Commonwealth Cup win as he heads into the offseason. A victory would snap Virginia’s 12-game losing streak to the Hokies.
Paraphrased as always, here is a rundown of Coach Mendenhall’s Monday press conference ahead of the 2016 Commonwealth Cup clash, which will be televised by ESPN2. The full transcript has been added below.
Understanding The Rivalry
If Mendenhall had any question of just how much Virginia Tech’s 12-game winning streak over the Hoos means to UVA fans, it was answered at his first Virginia Athletics Foundation social. A fan welcomed him to UVA and added, “Beat Tech,” Mendenhall recalled.
In his playing days at Oregon State, Mendenhall experienced the “Civil War” between the Oregon Ducks and the Beavers. He described the rivalry as “fierce” but “civil.” BYU’s archrival is Utah, and this game is anything but civil. As a result, Mendenhall is confident he is well prepared for Virginia versus Virginia Tech.
While this is his first time coaching in the Commonwealth Cup, Mendenhall acknowledges the Virginia community and the players are well aware of what has happened against the Hokies in the past. He vowed to “work like crazy” to try and help his team leave Blacksburg with a win.
Keeping his players focused on their assignments and helping the team as opposed to getting too emotionally charged will be important early, Mendenhall said.
History With Justin Fuente
Memphis, led by then head coach Fuente, defeated a Mendenhall-led BYU team, 55-48, in overtime of the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl. A brawl ensued following the hotly contested game, prompting Mendenhall to call and apologize to Fuente in the days to come.
The next time the two coaches met was at a banquet in Richmond last offseason. Mendenhall said two men reflected on the irony of coaching rival schools in the wake of what happened in Miami.
Prior to the Miami Beach Bowl, Mendenhall coached against Fuente when Fuente was Co-Offensive Coordinator at Texas Christian from 2009-2011. BYU lost 38-7, 31-3, and 38-28 in those three matchups. Mendenhall praised Virginia Tech’s first year head coach as being “very skilled” in a lot of different areas. Virginia Tech does a large variety of things from an offensive standpoint both inside and outside. It does those things at a fast tempo, creating a “frenzied” experience for the defense. Virginia’s D will have be composed as it tries to contain the Hokies offense.
– Mendenhall described this morning’s team meeting as “meaningful” and “impactful.” He later added that while he wants to win, he has been captivated with the Virginia players and the process of rebuilding this program.
– QB Matt Johns will start against the Hokies, Mendenhall said. Mendenhall felt the senior signal caller performed well and made good decisions for a large stretch in last week’s 34-17 road loss to Georgia Tech. He felt Johns pressed when Virginia got behind.
Johns completed 27-of-44 passes for 220 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions against the Yellow Jackets, making his first start of the season. Despite the loss and three turnovers, Mendenhall felt Johns brought a calm confidence to the team.
– Mendenhall didn’t specifically say what injury redshirt freshman wide receiver Warren Craft may have, but he did say Craft has been in an injury protocol and has yet to be cleared. Craft has missed the past four games due to the injury, which could impact his future in football if today’s press conference is any indication.
The nature of the injury is not one to be messed with, Mendenhall said. The longer a player is in the protocol for said injury, the more concerning it becomes.
– Sam Hayward missed two of three field goals against Georgia Tech but will continue to the placekicker, Mendenhall said. Hayward has been extremely consistent in practice, but that has yet to translate to continued success in game settings.
– Mendenhall says players can’t get rid of bad habits. All you can do is form new and good habits and make those stronger than the bad ones. With that in mind, he praised Virginia’s long touchdown drive that cut Georgia Tech’s lead to 24-17 in the fourth quarter. Mendenhall liked the way UVA responded to being down 24-10 with a 75-yard touchdown drive.
Virginia’s defense would hold Georgia Tech on the ensuing series, but a Johns interception was returned 24 yards for a touchdown, providing for the final score.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S NOVEMBER 21 PRESS CONFERENCE
COACH MENDENHALL’S OPENING STATEMENT I had a really meaningful and impactful morning with our team this morning. Lots to learn and grow from still.
I was really pleased with about two and a half quarters of the game, from start until about the seven-minute mark. And played probably as consistently as we’ve played and collectively in all areas through that time and still struggling to find the consistency and making sure that the teachable moments aren’t lost on this team no matter when they happen. And basically driving home the point of the way to work for consistency is to continue to be within the bounds of your assignment and within the framework of what you are asked to do.
Most of the things that are happening now that would lead to mistakes are outside of that. And that leads to the inconsistency, which the current team is struggling with, and I think maybe the current culture that we’re working to eradicate and move forward from.
I thought the team played hard and I thought they played hard right to the end. I’m encouraged to see that and the resiliency. Looking forward to taking part and being with this team one more time. I like these guy kids a lot. I appreciate the trust they have put in me and how hard they have worked since I’ve arrived until now. I would love to see them have success and continue to learn and grow.
Question. You were part of Oregon State-Oregon as a player, BYU-Utah as a head coach and assistant. How different were those two rivalries and what sense do you have of this one?
COACH MENDENHALL: They were quite different. The Civil War of Oregon-Oregon State was a fierce rivalry, but that rivalry would be civil in relation to BYU-Utah. I don’t have words to describe that. Rivalry doesn’t even come close to doing that justice there.
So I don’t know what this will be like, but coming from that particular game, I’m not sure how I couldn’t be prepared for anything else after being in that experience.
Q. Just from the sense we’ve gotten from you for one season, it seems like if you lost 12 straight games to a team it would grind on you like nothing else. How much will you invoke that passion in yourself this week and how much will you try to light that fire? Nobody likes to talk about the past, but it’s kind of more than just more game, it seems like?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think it is, especially to the community, the institution, the state and the players because they’ve been through more than just one game. I haven’t. But my loyalty and my commitment is to this team and to give them their very best chance to have success regardless of who we play. If you put it against the backdrop of that context, it means a lot to them. I would love to help them have success.
So I don’t think I need to address anything other than how to help them play best this game. They already know the history. They are living the history, as is the community and the institution and the UVA fans. So noted. And now I got to work like crazy to help our team.
Q. You mentioned some of those rivalries you have been in. What have you found in terms of when you embrace that energy, can the first quarter get sloppy? Do you have to reign in a team?
COACH MENDENHALL: More of the second. The more that the rivalry builds and the more things that happen throughout the week prior to the game, that isn’t the game, usually the more chippy and the more non-football-like that it becomes, which isn’t good for college football. It’s not good for the kids, it’s not good for the fans. Doesn’t reflect class and sportsmanship, which is part of college football.
So I’m not for that. But I have seen it and I have been part of it and I haven’t liked it on any occasion.
Q. On that same topic, when this game starts sometimes those games can have a lot of dropped passes, it seems like people are pressing. Have you experienced that?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s really just focusing on what matters. Really the only thing that matters when you play any significant game is the complete focus on your assignment and helping your team. Anything that goes beyond that in terms of personal vendettas or et cetera becomes selfish play and usually works counterproductive to what you want to do as a program and to help your teammates win, which is what the kids want most anyway.
They are learning and they are growing and they are young, but I work much better under just the consistency and focus approach.
Q. Obviously you have played Coach (Justin) Fuente before. The way it ended caused a lot of headlines. Have you crossed paths with him since then? Have you had any light moments, like here we are facing each other in the same conference?
COACH MENDENHALL: That was the first and only thing like that I have ever been through in terms of postgame and a fight as a player or a coach. So it was really shocking and uncharacteristic.
I called Justin the next day after the game and I apologized for any misconduct on our player’s part and we had a nice conversation about it. He was out Christmas shopping with his girls when I called him.
Our next conversation is we ended up there was a Richmond sports banquet and we ran into each or the there and we just kind of laughed and chuckled at the irony that that was probably the last memory we had and now we’re at school in the same state.
I had some history with Justin before when he was at TCU and I was at BYU. I wouldn’t expect anything like that ever to happen again probably in either one of our careers or with any teams that we coached. What led to that one I still am not certain, but don’t want to see it again.
Q. By this point last week you, had identified your starting quarterback. Any change in that situation?
COACH MENDENHALL: No. We’re going to start Matt. Again, I thought composure and experience and decision making for a lot of the game was right on point. And we were playing complimentary football and really some of our best football, through again about two and a half quarters. And it was fun to watch that all happening at the same time.
Matt, like some of the other players in our team, when circumstances changed or field position changed, or when we played from behind, he pressed a little bit and made a few mistake, as did other players on our team. But I would like to give him another chance and see what he can do with our team and I think he will do a nice job.
Q. Obviously Smoke (Taquan Mizzell) has been on a pretty good roll here the second half of the season. He mentioned last week that it felt weird to him at the beginning of the year when you guys held him out of scrimmages, things like that, maybe led to the slow start. Looking back on it, would you have done that differently to get him going earlier this season?
COACH MENDENHALL: Really hard to say. I think looking back and second guessing, certainly to do it again and not knowing, and not knowing for sure where the team was and how much work he would need and what effect that would have, hard to say that I would have done it different after the fact. And hard to know at the beginning what that’s going to look like.
He’s a really good player. He’s durable and unselfish. He’s a complete back. He can catch it and run with it. We’ll really miss him when he’s gone. He’s done a really nice job for our program, not only as a leader this year but production wise. The way that he’s migrated and embraced just our approach and our staff, it’s sincere and genuine. And I really like him and had a chance to tell his mom that in the hotel lobby before the last game.
Q. The players that have come in and talked to us all year have been unanimous that the buy-in has been unanimous and they feel like they are part of something. How much heading in the into the offseason would ending the season on a high note bring any stragglers along?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think that is sincere. I mean, I would never open a team meeting to anyone from the outside but, man, this team really likes each other. And the staff and our team is really close and unified. When we’re at practice and when we’re at meetings, there’s really zero emphasis on the record. There is so much work going on and optimism and hope, and I think rightly so, and I think it’s well-founded.
The way the program has run, it’s pretty much impossible to be a straggler. You can’t stay in that space because the expectation and the culture really won’t allow it. So I think these players have real done a really nice job starting something.
How long it will take, I don’t have the answer to that. But we all feel like we are making a difference and the tangible results haven’t shown. I would love to for that to happen for them. I would love for them to have more experiences and bus rides home and plane rides and locker rooms full of success.
I think they are — I’m not going to say content, but they are encouraged just from seeing what the organization and the coaching and the relationships that are being built looks like. And they like coming to the work every day, as do I. And it’s been a really interesting thing for me personally having not been a head coach of a team that’s lost more than it’s won. Doesn’t feel like that very much. It feels like I’m looking forward to working with them again maybe more so than ever in my career. I’m not sure how this is. And I love winning. But these kids and this change effort have captivated me and I’m looking forward to playing a significant role in the outcome that I think will come at some point.
Q. You have faced Fuente before. What are some of the characteristics of his offense and how has he adapted it at Tech?
COACH MENDENHALL: They are very good. So he’s very skilled as a coach and a lot of different things. So spread formations and lots of motions, lots of eye control things that allow secondary players or perimeter players to look elsewhere. Quarterback runs, screens, really about every type of plays from inside to outside to short game to deep game are all part of what Virginia Tech does and they do it pretty effectively and with tempo.
So all those things kind of create a frenzied type of experience and so it really demands composure and concentration and execution to combat that.
And when you look at the output, especially maybe the last five games, I think they found their rhythm a little bit more, their identity a little bit more. 30-something points of a game regardless of who they play. I think not only his past success speaks to what kind of coach he is, but certainly what they are doing this year.
Q. Bud Foster has been at Tech so long that he’s become an institution there, kind of the way Frank Beamer was. As a defensive coach yourself, do you look at coordinators around the country at successful programs and what are you thoughts on what Bud has done there and the defense he has?
COACH MENDENHALL: Just staying anyplace for that long reflects good coaching. And a lot of times it’s more than just good coaching. There usually has to be a personality there that’s embraced and liked. Because you can be a good coach and not liked, and then usually the first sign of a bad game or a bad year then they are anxious to say goodbye to you. So he must be both to be able to stay that long.
And that leads itself to a sense of consistency in their program and probably why — I’m not sure how it worked to where he was retained, but probably the record and the type of defense played but also the consistency at least that part would remain and then the offense could be reenergized by what their new head coach is doing.
Q. Offensively, I don’t know if it’s by design but they have become a team that relies on running, the quarterback. They had some success and failures running tailback early. What do you see there? Do you change your approach because of what they have shown?
COACH MENDENHALL: The quarterback is the leading rusher, and so that reflects that they are most comfortable with him running, which just simply means from a schematic standpoint it’s more difficult to defend a running quarterback than handing the ball off because of the numbers advantage the offense has at that point. So if they thought they could run the ball handing it off, they would do so because it’s less hits on the quarterback. But clearly they have reached a different conclusion and it’s been really effective.
So in order to defend a running quarterback, most teams take more risks. But more risk usually means more points, especially if you can throw the ball capably down the field which they can.
It isn’t a game that in general you can play with one tempo, there has to be multiple tempos. And you have to pick and choose when you might want to make a stop and when you might want to be more methodical and just controlling the type of yards you give up rather than the points you give up.
Q. They have shifted their focus away from their run game. What have you seen in terms of what does and also what that exposes?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s pretty simple. The more emphasis you put on wide outs, the more the quarterback and the run will work. And the more that you put on the run game and the quarterback, the more the pass game will work. Unless you are able to match up and you feel that your secondary per man is capable of matching up with theirs. And so if you are not equipped in any of those areas then you have to have to be moving target and move the conflict player. So there isn’t the rhythm, which most offenses like to be rhythmic but you have to move the conflict players and move the tempos to cover flaws and hopefully highlight strengths.
Q. Even though you guys lost the other day, did you feel like Matt (Johns) kind of gave the team a spark, an emotional spark? What did you think about what he brought to the team?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think the best word that I could use to describe what Matt brought was just presence. There was a spark, but there was this almost calm confidence with how he managed the team. Again, especially early, the decision making on early downs, a lot of our success in that game, while we were having success, was we were managing early downs really well, which had us in third and manageable a lot. And we were converting third downs. They couldn’t get us off the field and they couldn’t stay on the field. So we really had complete control of the game for a long time against a team that thrives on holding on to the ball and not letting the opponent on the field. And we had reversed the script and Matt allowed us to do that, especially with his decision making on early downs and then being poised and putting the ball where it needed to be on manageable, just to keep the chains moving.
I think there was a sense of confidence and again just presence. There was a calming factor to our team.
Q. I know you are limited in what you can say medically, but if I might ask you about a player from our area. Warren Craft has been out for eight or nine weeks. Are you concerned about him long-term or are you just being real cautious?
COACH MENDENHALL: I would say both. Really I can’t speak much other than when Warren is cleared through protocol, which he wants to do and I want to have him do, I would love to have him back.
But really the longer protocol takes, usually gives more rise to concern and that’s not — the nature of injury isn’t one that you take risks with. So we just are hopeful and biding our time and encouraging and wanting his health, first and foremost, and his well-being. And if he plays again and when he plays again that will be a great thing for all of us, but it’s taking certainly a long time. But needed.
And the safety measures are in place to ensure that. It mitigates any internal pressure he feels to join us too soon and it adds to great judgment which, man, I really would like him to be healthy and have a great future with or without football.
Q. After the game on Saturday, I think you used the term there’s some deep habits here that you have to break, particularly towards finishing games and how it gets to that spot in third or fourth quarter where something bad happens. Has that been a harder challenge than you expected going in knowing the recent history of this program?
COACH MENDENHALL: The answer is yes to that and I noticed it in our very first game. And there’s a script and just to make it clear, I don’t — I might have used the term accidentally, but I really don’t use the term break habits. Replacing is what we believe in and the research is pretty clear on that. But you can’t ever make a habit go away, but you can replace it with a new one. And that can then become stronger than the old.
It does take time. It does take reinforcement for that to happen. But there is script that has played, that I see play out. And as the critical moments in the game manifest, those are the times where possibly because of recent history the team, man, they strain. And they really want the success but most of the time so far, at least in my short time here, that’s leading to increased mistakes rather than cleaner play.
So what we’re focusing on and what we’re targeting now is when those moments arise is to take all of that, those other thoughts or whatever the history is and channel it only into that one play and that’s going to give us a much better chance of having the kind of outcome that we want.
But a lot of factors pulling at these kids. That’s stronger than what I anticipated, but will be that much invigorating and it is invigorating to be battling against it every day. That’s one of reasons I game is to do something difficult and this is. But I like that challenge and they do as well. I think they love being believed in. I think they are capable. I would love to help them. And so I’m going to continue to help celebrate the simple and small successes along the way until there are more tangible ones that I’m judged by and our team is, which is normal.
I’m going to guard the simple things along the way that I see progress in. For instance, when we got down by 14 we put a really masterful drive together, driving the entire field to close it back to 7. That to me was a really nice drive and showed a lot of resiliency and composure after a pretty rough stretch in there. Those are moments of capability that I love to highlight and draw from. I need to help our team have more of those and become trained in a way that the circumstance and the context of the game doesn’t influence our performance quite as much. And right now it is.
Q. You take this job, you get here, you start doing like the socials and things like that. How long did it take until you got a sense of how big this rivalry is among the fans?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think I was asked at the first social that I went to, I think the first person introduced themselves and said, “Welcome to UVA, beat Tech.” That was just okay. And so I appreciated the welcome, but it was like that.
So I understand. I think I understand again probably more so than what anyone could imagine from the context I just came from. And I want our team to have success.
Q. There was a lot to talk about after the game Saturday. I don’t think we ever asked you about the first touchdown when Daniel Hamm took the direct and ran in. I know there are only so many carries to go around. Have you gotten a sense of Daniel’s ability as a running back through this fall or is that something that will wait until the spring to see?
COACH MENDENHALL: I would say it’s waiting more to the spring. But what I will say is that the role that he’s earned in punt return, he’s taken that role and magnified it to the point where much like Joe Reed on kickoffs, when we’re going to punt, if you watch the team, they will start moving up to the sideline to watch. That’s the greatest compliment he could get. We know he’ll catch it. We know he’s fearless and we know he’s capable with the ball. That’s really what earned him a chance to be used down the goal line.
So, again, it’s taken a while to really identify roles and depth and who can do what, and it’s been an ever changing target with a little bit of history, as for any team.
But Daniel’s is one that his role and his stock has risen and continues to do so all the way going into this last game. He’s doing a really nice job.
Q. I’m not sure we asked you the other day about the last kickoff, I guess after your touchdown. Dylan (Sims) took that kickoff. Why the change there and just talk about your kicking situation in general?
COACH MENDENHALL: Our kicking situation has been very difficult and very inconsistent. Again, I removed a player in the offseason who was our leading candidate to be our field goal kicker, as well as a long snapper. So we’ve been able to, man, knock on wood, make it through the year with our snaps being right on point, our punting game being exceptional. But our field goal kicking has been a struggle in terms of consistency.
We’ve had a number of different solutions, a practice format that has put as many repetitions in place as we probably can. We have accelerated the preparation, but it hasn’t led to outcome.
In terms of the kickoff, so there was some wind and it was pretty unpredictable but at that moment and that time of the game, it was worse coming from my right-to-left and Dylan has a stronger left for kickoff. And I chose rather than to squib it and keep it low, I chose to put Dylan in believing he could kick it a long ways, keep it in bounds, the hang time with the wind might keep it up and we could still cover it effectively. And it worked just opposite. The wind pushed it down, knuckle balled it and it went out on the 35. We ended up making a stop.
One of biggest plays in the game was their punter punting the ball and pinning us down inside the 3-yard line after the defense had made another stop.
Most likely, my choice on the kickoff influenced that. But it was my call. Coach (Kelly) Poppinga does our special teams and he asked me what I wanted to do. Rather than squib it, I choose to put the different kicker in and hang it and it doesn’t work.
Q. What about going forward?
COACH MENDENHALL: There won’t be much change. Sam is the one that we trust most with — and he’s earned that trust in practice. He’s really consistent with the team around him and causing all kinds of grieve to him. He still has been putting it through the uprights. That hasn’t yet translated as consistently as we want.
I wish I had another answer other than time, but that’s the best answer I can give.
Q. I think next week or a couple weeks from now, you might have a couple First Teamers with Quinn (Blanding) and Micah (Kiser) maybe Smoke (Taquan Mizzell) gets on a team. This isn’t the first time this has happened with Virginia. They’ve had individual recognition but the team part hasn’t been with it. Is that proof that there’s talent here and what’s the next step in turning those individuals into team success?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think as a coach my philosophy is a little bit different, so I’ll explain that first. My job is to take the current resources here and design schemes and strategies and motivate them and bring them together to give them their best chance for success.
The players’ capability level, I just kind of take them from where they — lift from where I stand. Meaning, take them from whatever levels and move from there. I have a better idea now, going into our last ACC game, of what the league looks like, what the talent base looks like, what the depth looks like, what the size looks like, what the maturity of the program look like. So we have work to do on a number of fronts.
What we get to talk about each week is the football component, the execution, every bit, if not more, is our efforts to what I call talent acquisition. That means going out and bringing in players that will staff our roster. Our roster is not deep. The plan is not in place to have a well thought out what I call succession planning, meaning here goes the left tackle, who is next. Then where is the one being developed and who is on the board as the one coming up. It’s apparent, our roster, there’s holes everywhere. That’s a starting place. That’s not a reason to become discouraged, but that is what it is.
So sometimes a player or two on a team are not only exception in their right by their abilities, but they are doing more and having more opportunities because sometimes the complimentary cast isn’t or maybe quite necessary to what maybe the comparisons in the league has.
And so in this case, the number of plays that Quin and Micah make is phenomenal. They are both excellent football players. They are very well prepared every week. They are so durable and they are so tough and they are great leaders. But possibly along this way in their careers they have been asked to do more because they’ve had to do more. I actually prefer a team that has more balance, where the production is coming not equally but more equal than what I have seen, offensively and defensively. Those reflect to me the best programs. At some point that will be what this looks like.