The 2019 season was historic for the University of Virginia football program. There were some firsts for Cavalier football, including …
– Winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title.
– Playing in the ACC Championship game.
– Earning a bid to the prestigious Orange Bowl, a longtime major bowl now one of the “New Year’s Six” bowl games – the Orange, along with the Chick Fil-A Peach, Cotton, Fiesta, Rose and Sugar Bowls, rotate turns in hosting the College Football Bowl Playoff games.
In addition to the first-time accomplishments, the 2019 Cavaliers achieved the following …
– Beating Tech! UVA snapped a 15-game losing streak to rival Virginia Tech with a thrilling 39-30 victory in Scott Stadium. Mendenhall has said repeatedly that beating Virginia Tech is a must for his program to take another step forward. After letting the Commonwealth Cup slip through their fingers in Blacksburg last season, the Hoos got the job done in Charlottesville this year.
– Virginia won nine games for just the seventh time in school history, joining the 1895, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2007 teams. UVA has won 10 games in a season only once, doing so in 1989.
– UVA earned a bowl berth for a third straight season for the first time since Al Groh’s teams accomplished the feat in 2002-2005. If Virginia makes a bowl next season, it will be the third time in school history the Cavaliers have achieved a postseason bowl berth in four straight seasons. UVA has never reached a bowl five seasons in a row.
The culture Bronco Mendenhall sought to establish seems solidly in place, as this team showed grit and resiliency on its way to a 9-5 campaign. “The Standard” has been established. Just as it had in 2017 and 2018, UVA football increased its’ win total from the previous year and applied lessons learned from the previous year.
In 2019, Virginia football went from rebuilding to facing a new kind of pressure … high expectations. Last season’s 8-5 record, convincing Belk Bowl victory, as well as the return of star quarterback Bryce Perkins, an experienced defense, and more, led the media to pick the Cavaliers as the preseason favorites to win the ACC Coastal Division.
The high expectations didn’t affect the Cavaliers, who instead followed the lead of their coach in terms of ignoring positive or negative outside “noise”. That is, anything that gets in the way of preparing for an opponent. Facing Pitt, a team that handled UVA in Charlottesville in November of 2018, on the road in the season opener also helped keep the Cavaliers’ focused.
Virginia took care of business in the Steel City, winning 30-14. Aside from dropping a very winnable game at Miami (you can argue UVA should have beaten Louisville as well, but Louisville was better than anyone expected), Coach Mendenhall’s group took care of the “business” of winning the games they needed to win on their way to a Coastal Division title. Some notable accomplishment on the division title run …
– Winning November. The Cavaliers were 2-10 in November in the previous three seasons under Mendenhall. Last season, Virginia controlled its Coastal destiny at the start of November only to lose its final three ACC games. 2019 was different. UVA won all four November contests – beginning with a road win at UNC and ending with the home victory over Tech, with home wins over Georgia Tech and Liberty in between – and seized the ACC Coastal title.
– Clutch road wins. UVA entered 2019 with only four true road wins in three seasons under Mendenhall. While the Hoos endured all three regular season losses on the road, they did pick up two huge conference wins, including the pressure-packed season opener at Pitt and the November opener at UNC. Those wins were crucial in a close Coastal race.
Resilience, adaptability and improvement spurred Virginia in 2019. Mendenhall speaks of complementary football often, and Virginia needed to perform well in all three phases to be successful, but the defense was the anchor of this team to start the season. The Cavaliers surrendered 16.5 points per game as the Hoos defeated Pittsburgh, William & Mary, Florida State and Old Dominion to jump out to a 4-0 overall record that included two conference wins. UVA allowed an average of 17.7 points per game in the first seven games (factoring only scores by the opposing offense).
The Hoos endured a tough stretch in games 5-8 (at Notre Dame, at Miami, vs. Duke, at Louisville), losing three of the four contests. Virginia’s offensive line was exposed at Notre Dame (and against ODU the previous week, to be honest). The Hoos lost All-American cornerback Bryce Hall for the season in the Miami game, which also highlighted the inability of the Cavalier offense to put the ball in the end zone. UVA reached the inside of the Miami 25 six times but only managed nine points.
Hall’s injury marked the beginning of UVA football needing to rely mostly on its offense and not its defense to win games. Beginning with Louisville, the Cavalier defense surrendered an average of 34.6 points per contest the second half of the season. In the final five regular season contests (not including the ACC title game), UVA allowed 28.8 points per contest. Losing Hall was huge, but Virginia also played without starting safety Brenton Nelson for the final six games of the year and key inside linebacker Rob Snyder for the final eight contests of the year. Snyder didn’t start (though he may in 2021), but he is a proven player who spelled starters Zane Zandier and Jordan Mack.
Without key players in place, the Cavalier defense was a different animal than the one that started 2019. Big-play touchdowns, and big plays in general, plagued Virginia in its final seven games. The Hoos surrendered three big-play touchdowns (15-or-more yards) in five September games and six in total in the first seven games (this included a meaningless 23-yard TD pass to Duke late in the game). Virginia’s defense surrendered 12 big-play scores – nine passing and three on the ground – in its final five regular season games, and six more – four versus Clemson and two versus Florida – in the ACC Championship and Orange Bowl.
Perkins and the Cavalier offense emerged in a major way when needed the most, posting over 30 points in each of UVA’s four November matchups. The offensive line making giant strides and a healthy Brennan Armstrong – Mendenhall said the staff ran Perkins less with Armstrong sidelined from Florida State until the Louisville game – allowed UVA’s star signal caller and his talented group of receivers to flourish. In a must-win against North Carolina, Perkins broke his own single game Virginia record of total offense with 490 yards to jump-start UVA’s perfect November run.
A resilient, defiant, determined Virginia team pushed through a successful regular season, and at the end the Hoos accomplished their goals of a division title and beating Tech.
ACC Championship and Orange Bowl
Virginia was outmatched in the ACC Championship against Clemson, despite a game effort from Perkins and the offense. The Cavalier defense had no answer for Clemson’s offense, which includes likely NFL first-round draft picks at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, not to mention a stellar offensive line. Still, a great experience for a growing program. Clemson is the bar UVA is trying to reach. Apply the lessons and move on knowing that’s the national championship standard to strive to.
UVA was rewarded for its 9-win regular season and divisional championship with a trip to the Capital One Orange Bowl, where the Hoos faced a 10-2 Florida Gators squad. The Orange Bowl is one of the premier bowl games in the nation. Coaches and players raved about the event, and as a media member covering this event, I can attest that my experience was first class. The Hard Rock Stadium workers were kind and helpful. The stadium was immaculate. The police escorting the media shuttle was, well, interesting, but overall just a great experience for everyone. A top-flight experience you’d expect from one of the nation’s premier bowl games.
Making this bowl game is a big deal. For the Cavalier players and coaches, the Orange Bowl was a fitting reward for what this program has accomplished in the past four seasons. Postgame, Mendenhall once again acknowledged the “pioneers” who have helped build the foundation for this and future programs. His pride in Bryce Perkins and Hasise Dubois was clear as the three of them addressed the media after.
“Well, I think legacy is the right word,” Mendenhall said following the Orange Bowl. “It was the word I used, I think, in the locker room.”
“Hasise I think is exemplary of the legacy type of player, person, but also the development,” Mendenhall continued. “We consider ourselves a developmental program, and we take coaches and anyone that comes and hopefully can bring out the best versions of them with the right principles, and these two guys are great examples of that as well as the entire senior class, which I had them walk out behind the captains. I don’t know how else to honor them. Anything I do doesn’t seem to be quite enough, but they’re amazing young people.”
In terms of the game, a depleted Virginia defense now without linebacker Jordan Mack had time to prepare for the 2019 Capital One Orange Bowl and were determined to play better than they did in Charlotte against the Tigers. They wanted to demonstrate to a national audience that Virginia football is for real. The Cavaliers were within a touchdown of the No. 9 team in the nation in the fourth quarter. A few plays go Virginia’s way and the Cavaliers could have snuck out a victory. As such, Florida made the plays and UVA didn’t in the final quarter.
UVA fell short of an Orange Bowl title and 10-win season, but the Cavaliers did turn in a good showing on a national stage and did not appear intimidated by playing on a national stage, a strong indication of the tough-minded culture in Charlottesville. The results in Charlotte and Miami Gardens may not have been what Perkins, Dubois and company wanted. Perkins and Dubois are gamers, for sure, which is what made them so great. Making these games, though, is essential for future growth and, ideally, leading to UVA coming away with championships of their own down the road.
UVA’s upward trajectory continued in Mendenhall’s fourth season. The culture is in place. The program added new achievements and new experiences beneficial to the growth of the program in the seasons to come. So what’s next for the Hoos?
Hoos Rising? Leadership & Playmaking
Replacing a player like Bryce Perkins, who leaves UVA with multiple school records and was a huge part of the offense these past two seasons, will be a challenge. Coach Mendenhall has acknowledged that the program would not be where it is today without Perkins. In addition to his playmaking, Perkins was a fantastic leader who brought a new level of belief to this Cavalier team.
“There’s two principles that I endorse and believe in,” Mendenhall said following the Orange Bowl. “First is that culture precedes performance, and the second is who first and then what, and so we worked the prior two years before Bryce came, we were working so hard on just establishing what a culture of excellence looks like and raising expectations and raising hopes and establishing belief, and it became really clear after those two years that we needed a dynamic player and person to lead our team offensively and from the quarterback position.
“And who would have guessed, from Arizona Western and the University of Virginia that that matches, with a coach that came from Provo, Utah, to Virginia, and now we have this relationship. Bryce is the exact person we were hopeful to have lead our program, and I’m talking person first and then player second. It was and is the perfect fit. I couldn’t have hoped for anything else. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else or anybody else. I’m just grateful.”
Leadership-wise, players like Terrell Jana, Joey Blount, Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier come to mind. Personnel-wise, all eyes turn to quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who has shown promise and is expected to take over for Perkins. Jana, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, headlines a talented-but-mostly-unproven receiving unit. All five starters return on the offensive line. Virginia returns a wealth of experience on defense on all three levels as well as its starting placekicker and punter.
Virginia returns a good group, but the schedule will be more challenging as it features Georgia to kick off the season. The Hoos travel to Clemson in a cross-division matchup and head to Blacksburg to finish off the year. Other road games include ODU, Duke and Georgia Tech, while the Hoos face VMI, U-Conn, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina and Pittsburgh at home. UVA was a perfect 7-0 in Scott Stadium in 2019.
Mendenhall’s Recruits In Place. With a few exceptions, most of Virginia’s 2020 team will be comprised of players Mendenhall recruited. This staff has shown the ability to develop players … the offensive line was getting to be a concern, but the unit seemed to turn the corner this season. One of the next steps in this building program is having the established depth in place, so the team may not feel the sting of injuries as much.
This year the secondary was ravaged by injuries. Otherwise, Virginia was able to stay relatively healthy in 2019. Next year and in the years to come we’ll be watching to see if Mendenhall has been able to successfully recruit and develop players to achieve the depth he wants.