The 2017 Military Bowl drew 35,921 fans, the third largest crowd in the bowl’s 10-year history. A large portion of those fans were in Annapolis to support a Virginia program making its first bowl appearance since 2011. The orange and blue faithful left disappointed, however, as the Hoos were dominated by the Navy Midshipmen, 49-7.
Virginia’s 2017 season, its second with Bronco Mendenhall at the helm, concludes with a 6-7 record. A marked improvement from last year’s 2-10 mark for sure, but today’s performance shows the Cavalier program has much work to do.
“I think [the loss] takes some of the edge off (an otherwise good season), but I can’t say it takes the edge off because the team worked really hard to get to this point,” Mendenhall said during his postgame press conference, which was attended by new athletic director Carla Williams. “It is an accomplishment that hasn’t happened in quite a while at UVA. We look forward to this happening every year moving forward. It certainly takes some edge off, but I don’t think it takes the edge off. It is never fun to not play well and to lose the game, but it is also reflective of exactly where we are. That is not an accident. It might be the most important game of the year in terms of having the opportunity to practice and prepare longer; reassess what we did there; analyze schematically whatever changes we need to make; but also reframing and addressing weaknesses in our program that maybe weren’t exposed quite to the level that they were today. It is hard to take, but it is also necessary to move forward.”
The game began on a positive note for Virginia when sophomore Joe Reed took the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. Twelve seconds in, the Hoos led 7-0. That’s about all that went right for Mendenhall’s group, which had a few flashes in an otherwise poorly played game in all three phases.
Virginia’s offense was inept from start to finish, managing just 143 yards of total offense against a defense that entered the game surrendering 386 yards of offense to its opponents. Poor play from senior quarterback Kurt Benkert, poor blocking by the offensive line, and dropped passes resulted in just 145 yards passing against a suspect Navy secondary susceptible to big plays. Virginia’s running game was once again non-existent, totaling a measly 30 yards. UVA failed to reach the 100-yard rushing mark in any of its final five games.
Navy’s offense had no problem getting its triple option attack in high gear. Sophomore starting quarterback Malcolm Perry led the way with 114 yards rushing and two touchdowns, leading Navy to touchdowns on its first two drives. Fullback Chris High added 101 yards and backup quarterback Zach Abey had 88 yards and five scores. In total, the Midshipmen ran through, around, and everywhere in between the Cavalier defense to the tune of 452 yards.
“They run a very good scheme, just like Georgia Tech,” said Virginia safety Quin Blanding, who totaled 16 tackles (eight solo) in his final game as a Cavalier. Senior Micah Kiser (11 tackles) and junior Juan Thornhill (10 tackles including eight solo) also reached double-digit tackles for the Hoos.
“They outplayed us and that’s the bottom-line,” Blanding continued. “They came ready to play and we didn’t. That is the bottom-line. I commend them over there at the Naval Academy. They did a really good job.”
When the defense came up with potentially momentum-gaining stops, the Cavalier offense couldn’t capitalize. Add in three turnovers, including two ill-timed fumbles, and Navy ultimately ran away with this one. A Reed fumble late in the second quarter led to the Midshipmen’s fourth touchdown of the first half and a 28-7 halftime lead. After the Cavalier defense scored a much-needed stop on the first offensive possession of the second half, Daniel Hamm muffed the punt, which Navy recovered and turned into another touchdown.
The offense in general, but most notably the offensive line, is on the “must improve” list moving forward. Next year’s defense will need to replace all-everything players Blanding and Kiser as well as defensive end Andrew Brown. But despite the sour ending to what, hopefully, could be a breakout year, the departing seniors feel good about the future of Virginia football.
“I think as new recruits come in and (the coaching staff) gets the people that fit the mold of what they want to do on offense and on defense, they are only going to get better,” said Benkert, who finished his Cavalier career completing 16-of-36 passes for 145 yards and an interception. “We are just scratching the surface. At the end of the day, it is just the beginning of what I think that we can do here at Virginia.”
“I feel like this is what we started,” Blanding said. “We started a foundation, a platform.”