Virginia Football Notables: Mendenhall’s Friday Speech Inspired Hoos

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Kurt Benkert threw two straight touchdown passes in response to Georgia Tech’s 14-point second half outburst. A persistent Virginia football team went on to defeat the Yellow Jackets, 40-36. ~ Photo by Michael Ingalls

Georgia Tech hit Virginia football with a stunning one-two punch to start the second-half last Saturday. Thirty-five seconds in, the Yellow Jackets scored two touchdowns – a 78-yard touchdown run by TaQuon Marshall and a pick-6 by linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling. Suddenly, the visitors had built a 28-13 lead.

Virginia’s spirit could have been broken. Instead, the Cavaliers came out fighting, hitting back with a touchdown pass, an interception, a second touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28.

Cavalier players discussed their mindset after falling down 15.

“I think it was more like, look, we just spotted ‘em 14 points right there in 35 seconds. We can do the same thing,” senior running back Daniel Hamm said. “We have just as much capability as they do. We can do anything we put our minds to. It was one of those things, like, don’t sweat it. We’re just going to bounce back.”

Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert said: “I think we knew at that point that we had really just been beating ourselves. They hadn’t really been doing anything, until that pick-6, to take away things that we were doing. Knowing that we were in full control even though we were down two touchdowns that our defense was going to get stops, we were going to get turnovers, if we could just move the ball and score touchdowns we would be fine. We just believed.”

“The last two weeks, if that would have happened, the outcome probably wouldn’t have been the same,” graduate transfer senior Brandon Pertile said. “This week, we were like, ‘We’re going to go out there, we’re going to fly around and play ball, and we’re going to win.’ So we saw we were down by 15 points. Whatever. It’s all about executing.”

“Coach Mendenhall had a long, long talk with us [the night of November 3], and it really hit us,” sophomore receiver Joe Reed said. “Afterwards the guys and I were talking about how meaningful that speech was. I think getting down was only going to make us play harder.”

Mendenhall has said previously that, during a typical week, he speaks less and less as the week goes on, allowing the player leadership to rise. In that sense his November 3 speech may have been out of character. It certainly resonated with his players, however.

“Long story short, [Mendenhall’s speech] was just about passion and believing in the brotherhood we have here,” Benkert said. “Not everything that shows up on Saturdays is really … not everybody can see everything we’re doing behind the scenes. Everybody coming together, having that cohesiveness, the sideline was jumping all day long, I think that was what it kind of was about.”

For Reed, the speech was “just about smashing somebody. Just giving it all you have. Playing as hard as you can, basically, until there’s no more time left on the clock.”

“[Mendenhall] really gave us a great motivational speech where we wanted to play that night,” senior free safety Quin Blanding said. “It’s just what he preaches all day, every day, our mindset and be resilient.”

True Freshmen Emerge Against Georgia Tech

True freshman defensive lineman Mandy Alonso had played in six of UVA’s eight games entering the Georgia Tech game. The Miami (FL) native had a substantially larger role against the Yellow Jackets than he had in any previous game, earning a start at defensive end and playing the majority of the game.

Virginia had had a productive defensive line rotation of senior end Andrew Brown, sophomore nose tackle Eli Hanback, sophomore end Juwan Moye and sophomore defensive end Steven Wright prior to last Saturday’s contest. If his play against Georgia Tech is any indication, you can now include Alonso in that group. He responded very well to the increase in snaps and now officially sits atop the Louisville game depth chart as a starting defensive end opposite Brown.

“Mandy Alonso, a first year defensive lineman, ended up earning the start this week and played almost every snap and played really well,” Mendenhall said during his November 6 press conference.

True freshman John Kirven saw some time at defensive end as well. Georgia Tech was the seventh consecutive game the former Woodberry Forest (VA) star has played in. Kirven, who has one tackle to his credit this season, is now listed as a backup at both defensive end spots.

On the offensive line, true freshman Chris Glaser (no. 69 in the Benkert picture above) took the field with three minutes left in the first quarter against Georgia Tech for his first college action. Glaser, who is listed as Brandon Pertile’s backup at right tackle, initially replaced Pertile at right tackle but later played left tackle in place of redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer, who appeared to be hobbling around.

Glaser, who is listed as being 6’3”, 280 pounds, looked poised and played well in his debut. Removing his redshirt was a decision Mendenhall didn’t take lightly, as Virginia’s coach said he consulted Glaser’s parents ahead of the Georgia Tech game. The move paid off as the Cavalier line, which had surrendered 10 sacks the previous three games, allowed zero sacks last Saturday.

“I’m so proud of Chris,” Brandon Pertile said of Glaser following the Georgia Tech game. “He’s come a long way since day one. He’s learning from me and Jack English a lot. Every game, even before this, he’s always watching. Mentally, he’s in there … he’s been playing since week one. It was really rewarding for me to see him go out there and execute. He played well. I was just so proud of him, and he’s gonna have a great, great career here as a Cavalier.”

More Notables

– You can see how valuable Juan Thornhill is to the Cavalier defense. Returning to the lineup after missing the final three quarters of the Boston College game and the entire Pittsburgh game, the junior cornerback had five tackles, a half a sack, and three pass breakups against the Yellow Jackets.

Blanding called it a “blessing” to have Thornhill back in the lineup, and Mendenhall believes his team may not have won without the Altavista (VA) native.

– Coach Mendenhall pointed out during his Monday press conference that true freshman receiver Terrell Jana’s backside block sprung Joe Reed on Reed’s 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Tech. Jana and fellow true freshman Joey Blount were two players Mendenhall mentioned as being very good on special teams this season. I’d also throw in true freshman speed back Lamont Atkins, who is often one of the first down the field on return coverage.

– Jana and Atkins have only played offense in addition to special teams this season. I expect both will stay on the offensive side of the ball moving forward; however, it has crossed my mind that one or both could get looks on defense if needed.

Atkins is physical, hard-nosed and has shown some nice tackling skills. He was a very good defender at Lake Braddock High School (Burke, VA). Jana signed with Virginia as an athlete with potential at receiver and defensive back. He doesn’t mind physical play, either.

There is no information or evidence that either player will move positions. I just think both could be realistic defensive options if needed.

– Redshirt freshman Ben Knutson earned the first start of his college career against Georgia Tech, getting the nod at left guard. The 6’8” Knutson alternated with graduate transfer John Montelus throughout the game.

– True freshman running back PK Kier has played in every game this season. Against Georgia Tech, he received the first start of his Cavalier career.

– True freshman outside linebacker Charles Snowden has played in six consecutive games. He had two tackles (both solo efforts) against Georgia Tech, boosting his season total to eight tackles with two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. A promising start to the 6’7″, 205-pound Snowden’s career.

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