After dropping four of its first five games in the coronavirus-challenged 2020 season, the University of Virginia football program has rattled off four straight wins and boasts a 5-4 mark heading into the regular season finale in Blacksburg, where the Hoos look to defeat Virginia Tech (4-6) and hold on to the Commonwealth Cup for a second straight season.
Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall, who guided UVA to a 43-32 victory over Boston College in UVA’s 2020 home finale this past Saturday, addressed the media for his final Monday press conference of the regular season. Paraphrased as always, here is the latest from the Cavalier head coach as his Hoos prepare to take on Tech in Lane Stadium this Saturday at 8 p.m.
Asked what rivalry week means to him, Coach Mendenhall says he feels a sense of responsibility to help his players reach their goal and be prepared at the highest level, so his focus is exclusively on his team and to help prepare them to have the experience they want.
For Mendenhall, regardless of how a season has gone, having a rivalry game at the end of the season gives players something to look forward to. That is what this type of game does, especially in what has been such as challenging year because of the coronavirus. It sounds as though Mendenhall feels both teams will be hyped to play this Saturday.
The Hoos and Hokies were scheduled to face off back in September, but Virginia Tech has to postpone because of coronavirus issues. Tech head coach Justin Fuente called Mendenhall to notify him directly that his team could not play, a gesture Mendenhall was impressed with. Virginia’s coach called the act “sportsmanlike, ethical” and a “quality thing to do.”
Mendenhall reiterated the pride he has for his team, noting the players’ resiliency and the progress they are making. He is proud to be their coach and anxious for this next challenge.
Virginia Players Notes
– Safety Joey Blount made his return to the field against Boston College after missing four straight games due to injury. Mendenhall called the performance a good launching point for the senior starter, who had a great season opening performance against Duke but has since been hampered by injury throughout this year. Mendenhall is hopeful he will keep progressing and will once again be able to play this week.
– Outside linebacker Elliott Brown did not register a tackle against Boston College but did a “nice job” according to Mendenhall, who specifically mentioned the athletic senior being around the quarterback. He also praised Brown for being ready to step up when needed, as UVA was without both of its starting outside linebackers in Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor.
Mendenhall asks his players to “stay ready” so they don’t have to “get ready” to play. Brown did that. Against the Eagles Brown was asked to play the most snaps of his career.
– Mendenhall had no update on the availability of Noah Taylor and defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter for the matchup with Tech. Both players missed the BC game. No official reason was given, but Virginia did have six players out because of coronavirus.
– Sophomore offensive guard Joe Bissinger’s role was growing prior to the season-ending injury to starter Dillon Reinkensmeyer. Bissinger has started the past two games in place of Reinkensmeyer, who was injured during the win over Louisville. The Texas native has emerged as a significant part of the line rotation because he has been workmanlike and steady and physical and tough on a consistent basis.
– The Virginia defense has been impacted by injury at a level Mendenhall has not experienced in his career as a head coach. The “next man up” mentality has been necessary this year more than ever. The coaches prepare players diligently to be ready when they are needed.
– Mendenhall credited his staff with doing a nice job of identifying graduate transfers last offseason and said those players have “really helped us.”
Mendenhall is happy to have Mississippi State grad-transfer Keytaon Thompson back for another year next season, saying it will be “really fun” to see how the talented athlete builds off this year’s performance. Each game, Thompson does something the coaches haven’t seen before.
President Kelli Pugh
Mendenhall was asked about the “behind-the-scenes” personnel involved with the coronavirus protocols, including Associate Athletics Director for Sports Medicine Kelli Pugh, who broke the rock following UVA’s season opening win over Duke.
“No matter what descriptors I use, it won’t do justice,” Mendenhall said. “The hours alone, if you were just to see that part, it is remarkable. The workload and how thin they’re all stretched. In Kelli’s case in particular. I told her that she was my write-in candidate for president of the galaxy this year, and the universe, whichever is bigger, I wrote her in for that. I can’t express my appreciation. She’s just been remarkable in every way and handled things with amazing class and dignity and grace, but also competency. And I just think she’s exceptional and she’s just reflective of her entire staff, our medical staff. As you mentioned the equipment staff. Without them and our football operations and the care they’re going to, yeah, we don’t get to this point.”
The Hokies won three of its first four contests in 2020 but have since dropped five of six including four consecutive games, the latest being a 45-10 decision to Clemson this past Saturday in Blacksburg.
Although the two programs have gone in different directions as the season has progressed, the Cavaliers are aware that Virginia Tech is a capable team. Mendenhall praised the Hokie offense as a “hard-nosed” and “physical” system that is “run-first” with screens and RPOs. The Tech offense has a good design and is typically well executed.
Personnel-wise, Mendenhall praised the Tech quarterbacks and adds that Fuente usually has multiple quarterbacks able to run the offense effectively. Running back Khalil Herbert is productive, tough, has great vision and is durable. It’s hard to stop him for no gain and he has been productive against any defense he has faced.
The Tech offensive line executes at a high level and has schemes that put stress on a defense. Combine that with a good running back and good running quarterbacks and you have the makings of a successful offense.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S DECEMBER 7 PRESS CONFERENCE, COURTESY OF VIRGINIA ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’m proud of our team, the resiliency, determination and the progress they’re making. I’m lucky to be their coach and anxious to take on our next challenge.
Q: More than a year has passed since the game against Virginia Tech last season. How would you characterize the effect of that victory on your program? How big of a difference has it made?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s hard to gauge how big a difference, but what is clear is not only that game but just about season, which was the next good season, which just continues to grow and build momentum. That was just one component. I would say the folks in-state are the ones that were most thrilled. I noticed that from them most. From a broader perspective and a national perspective, it was more just the continued growth and improvement, which I think has been the cumulative effect, not just necessarily that one game.
Q: What do you make of the passing numbers that Boston College had the other day?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: They had a very good plan they executed really well. We had significant breakdowns multiple times. But we created enough turnovers, enough sacks and had enough interceptions to ultimately overcome those things. Boston College has a unique offense has a good scheme, and I thought they executed really well. And there are certainly things we can improve on.
Q: Are you surprised to have made it to this point in late December having played nine games.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’m not sure I’m surprised, but I can say that there’s been nothing that’s predictable, other than maybe that we’re here. So, I don’t ever question that we’ve made it to the end. I think what I underestimated is the constant state of uncertainty and adaptability necessary to get to this point. And quite frankly, I think most teams and most coaches around the country, you’re coaching a different roster each week. And you’re coaching against a different roster each week. And you do your very best to adapt, adjust and overcome. What’s also really clear is once the game starts really nobody cares whatever happened to get to the game. Once the game starts, it’s about the results. And I think that’s from the players, from the fans and certainly from the media. And quite frankly from administration now it looks like. So once you choose to play, and once the game starts it’s back to normal in terms of outcomes.
Q: Is there anything approximating normalcy this week, knowing that it’s the final game of the regular season is against the state rival and the biggest game of the year in terms of the rivalry?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s actually much more normal than not normal. For the outside world it’s certainly not normal, because it is the in state rivalry game. In terms of the preparation model and the routines for coaches and staff, those are actually more normal than not. And it doesn’t mean the game isn’t more important. It doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have significant value. But the preparation models, they’re designed to maximize performance every single week so there is more routine than a typical routine I would say as a reference point.
Q: Many, many months ago you were scheduled to play Virginia Tech to open the season. Justin Fuente told us he had a conversation with you at that time canceling. What do you remember about that in context with now getting to finally play this game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Number one, I was, I was really impressed. Justin called and was really transparent that they weren’t going to be able to play. And then we just had a dialogue as to what we were expecting, what we’ve already encountered. Even then each program was experiencing different challenges. We haven’t had a follow up since but I’m sure the dialogue would be similar, hard to predict or script anything that’s happened to this point. I just I thought it was sportsman-like. I thought it was ethical. I thought it was just really a quality thing to do, to reach out and communicate with the other head coach. And so yeah it made an impact on me.
Q: Do you expect Joey Blount to play this week?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I anticipate him being able to play. He played in this last game. And he’s returning to full health so barring anything which, who knows what could happen this week, but we just, we would hope for continued progress and his ability to play.
Q: What does rivalry week rivalry week mean to you?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think mostly I feel a sense of responsibility to help our players reach their goals, reach their expectations and be prepared at the highest level. Very little is about me, very little about our staff. My focus is almost exclusively on our team, and how to help them have the experience that they want.
Q: You had [associate athletics director for sports medicine] Kelli Pugh break the rock after the Duke game. Now that you look back on the entirety of the season, how essential were behind the scenes folks such as Kelli and the equipment people and others who set up protocol?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No matter what descriptors I use, it won’t do justice. The hours alone, if you were just to see that part, it is remarkable. The workload and how thin they’re all stretched. In Kelli’s case in particular. I told her that she was my write-in candidate for president of the galaxy this year, and the universe, whichever is bigger, I wrote her in for that. I can’t express my appreciation. She’s just been remarkable in every way and handled things with amazing class and dignity and grace, but also competency. And I just think she’s exceptional and she’s just reflective of her entire staff, our medical staff. As you mentioned the equipment staff. Without them and our football operations and the care they’re going to, yeah, we don’t get to this point.
Q: How much have things changed just in the preparation for this week, compared to last year? After getting a win over the last year finally breaking the streak does it change the motivations at all, or is it roughly the same?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Roughly the same. We have the saying here kind of stolen from a book that’s currently out – it takes what it takes. That does not downplay the significance of the game or the importance, but to prepare for an opponent takes what it takes. There’s so many hours, there’s so many things that have to get done. And then in bigger games there’s additional emotion, there’s additional anxiety, there’s a different sense of personal as it becomes closer. Emotional things are some of the things that are different that have to be managed and quite frankly from my seat managing the external environment. Usually that just gets in the way of performance. And so, I like to try to just help our team. Be as focused as possible, help them with the external environment, which is much more difficult now because each player has their autonomy and social media, etc. Distractions usually decreased performance rather than increasing.
Q: Have you had to say anything to the team in regards to things on social media?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I haven’t addressed anything social media-wise since that moment. Quite frankly, there’s, there’s not a heck of a lot I can do about it other than advice. I believe in the power of choice. We’re very clear about how to increase performance and how to maintain it at the highest level. And then everybody chooses and applies that in their own way.
Q: Its seems like for a lot of coaches the end of the season the regular season can’t come soon enough. Seems like you guys would probably love it if you had 10 more games this year. Is that kind of where you are mentally?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, I think it’s an exaggeration, I think we’re gaining momentum. We’re playing well, and I’m really excited about that component. Everyone in college football has been on their campuses for a long time. And if you frankly think now about not just this game or the games that are coming up for these teams. Postseason announcements won’t come until the 20th. Games will happen after that, and so players potentially have a chance to be on Grounds, without school without other students, and away from their families for Christmas, to avoid the quarantine when you have to come back for longer. And so I think everyone’s excited about playing and playing football. When you think about extending longer for any college team now, that becomes a different challenge. so we’re excited to play we’re anxious to play. I think, in reference to your thought of playing 10 more games. Probably not.
Q: You obviously have experience with intense rivalries from BYU. When one team is going in one direction on the other teams going in the other direction. How much is the fact that you’re playing rival mitigate?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s each game is a game that itself in a season in and of itself. And sometimes the perception of what direction a team is going has a lot to do with just the schedule, and how that plays out. Sometimes you get a lot of tougher teams at the beginning of the year, and that means that you might be perceived to be a slow start. Sometimes you have tougher teams in a stretch and injuries at the end of the year and that perceives that you’re not finishing. In reality, after all of that, either way, it is this game. And everything else really is mitigated and not much before carries much weight, quite frankly.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what has impressed you and watching film of Virginia Tech’s offense, and their quarterback situation?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Much like every year under Coach Fuente, Virginia Tech is hardnosed. They’re run first. They’re physical. They’re tough. They play aggressively. The scheme builds on each other. There’s great screens and play actions and RPOS and then just good personnel. And so, it’s just very well designed. It’s very well architected and it’s usually really well executed. The quarterback position is one of the critical pieces for that. And every year it seems like there’s not only one but two, possibly three and sometimes even four players that are capable of that position. When you run the quarterback as we do and as they do, there’s risk, and so the next player up or the next man up is critical. And, and I’m impressed with whoever’s playing that spot for Virginia Tech. I just think they’re really well coached and well designed.
Q: Is your defense sort of the epitome of next man up in your career?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Probably at the highest level that I’ve ever experienced. And you never know at what position or what’s going to happen on a given week. Our coaches do the very best they can to put the next player up in position, prepare them diligently to make up ground and be ready. And that’s what happened this past week and it’s been happening most of the year.
Q: The way that things shook out scheduling-wise with the postponement of Virginia Tech game supposed to be earlier this season, now the finale, is there kind of a sense of everything happens for a reason, around your team that this is the way that your fall regular season will kind of culminate?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think so. I can’t speak and won’t speak for Virginia Tech, but I think one of the values of having a rivalry game at the end of the season is motivation. And regardless of how your season is gone, there’s always that game. This year, maybe more than any, as you look around college football, I think there’s some teams that are just treading water and trying to make it to the finish. Others have something to look forward to and are excited for another opportunity because of a specific opponent. I think that’s what this type of game does for the players involved in college football.
Q: Do you have a status update for Noah Taylor and Jahmeer Carter? Are you expecting them to be available this weekend?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t have an update yet. Hopeful for both, they would really help, but nothing to report yet.
Q: There’s a huge disparity, as you know, between your run defense and your pass defense. Is that just ultimately a matter of breakdowns in the secondary or is there more the front group can be doing?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: More of the first, more execution mistakes in the back end. We got enough pressure, and we sacked the quarterback enough and intercepted their quarterback three times. So there was enough havoc, enough turnovers, enough things to mitigate some of the execution breakdowns, but it’s never quite as simple as one or the other. It’s always an interplay to some degree. And then the opponent, the matchups, the scheme, that always has something to do with that as well.
Q: Did you feel like Joey’s [Blount] return to the secondary helped and did he have rust, to kind of scrape off after having been out that long?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s starting to help. It’s been a long time. So just to have him back out was a great launch point to re-begin. It certainly isn’t like just picking right up where you left off. There’s a physical acclamation, there’s a mental acclamation and there’s quite frankly just a production and game speed acclamation. It’s really, I’m so excited for him and us that we were able to restart that.
Q: What were your expectations with the grad transfer market, and how would you evaluate how it’s turned out for you?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The expectations are pretty simple. When we bring in a graduate transfer, we expect him to start, contribute immediately and have a great academic experience here at UVA. If a graduate transfer comes in and they don’t start, that’s not meeting expectations on our part or the players part. If they’re not exceptional in the classroom, that would be the same. I can address at least the on-field performance and I think we are accurate in almost every case right now, of the grad transfers we brought in. Again, we target them because of a need, or deficiency, or depth or some immediate need, and this year I think our staff did a really nice job, those players have really helped us.
Q: What about Keytaon [Thompson] on the other day?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Keytaon just each game seems to do something else that we haven’t seen him do yet. We have him for an entire, another year. And it’s gonna be really fun just to see where he goes from here.
Q: How do you think the lack of crowd might affect a rivalry game. Is it any different than a normal week or is it just sort of what you would expect from any traditional game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, yeah, I don’t. It’s hard to say but it just, I think it’ll be an atmosphere similar to every other game we played, other than the intensity maybe of the teams competing. That doesn’t downplay any of the previous games we played, or that they played. Every team wants to win every game. Sometimes when you see the same team for multiple times you know the players, maybe from the same state or there’s relationships, it just becomes more personal. The environment, the atmosphere will probably be similar, the personal nature of it will probably be difference if there is one.
Q: Mandy Alonso had mentioned that you had said during quarantine, the longer the season went on the better the team would get. I was curious if there is a reason why you thought your team would thrive, the longer this went on?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just what I’ve seen of them over time and the way they’re trained. And it was one of the very first calls we made, when we were able to have zoom calls with our team. That thought was just, I just believe that the longer it went the stronger we would get. There are bumps along the way. But it’s the design of the program and it’s my intent to help people in general, our players especially, but when challenges come, they just keep persevering and becoming more than they could have been without those challenges. And so, it’s just in align with the philosophical approach to our program as well.
Q: No. 21, Khalil Herbert for them [Virginia Tech]. To the untrained eye, he looks like an unusually patient runner with great vision, what do you see when you watch him run the ball?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, he’s productive, he’s tough, he has great vision, he’s durable and hard to stop for a no-gain play. So, he’s really, really done a nice job for a Virginia Tech this year, regardless of style of defense you’re playing against them and been really a strong boost for, I think, a really good running game.
Q: Their offensive line early in the year were playing extremely well talking about 300 rushing yards a game I know their productions fallen off but when you look at their offensive line this year, what do you see?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah really well coached. They execute at a high level. The schemes are stressful on a defense. And there’s a good running back and a good running quarterback. So all those variables right lead to just the production they’re having.
Q: You had a little fan contingent in the end zone with Charles [Snowden], Dillon [Reinkensmeyer] and Richard Burney. Can they travel with the team right now or do they have to sit back at home?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Number one, if they want to travel certainly, I’ll let them as long as they’re cleared medically, which I think they will be to be with the team. Would love to have them with us every minute of every day, every second that they want to be with us, and just really, really honored that they care that much about our program, have invested that much and helped us accomplish what we have so far.
Q: We talked about when Charles went down with his injury just the energy that he brings, and it seems like he was getting up off the scooter as much as he could to cheer on the team. What does it do for the team just to see him there?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Example is powerful. We talk about our fourth side, which is composed of those that aren’t participating in the game, and those could be players or fans, and Charles was modeling exactly what we want that to look like. And not having to be directed to do it, just authentically because of his commitment, which was a great lesson I think for all of us, and a metric for us all look out and say, ‘wait are we like him?’ And if we’re not, that’s what we would like it to be.
Q: There are two games scheduled on the same day as the ACC Championship game. What kind of blessing is it to you that every game you guys have played comes within the timeframe of the season and matters?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s been an amazing blessing and, and we were actually asked by the ACC to play on the 19th and said no for that very reason. I don’t think it added value to our program, or the team we would have been playing in whatever schedule changes we were asked to do. I’m mindful of our program, our players and doing the very best I can for them and having Boston College at home and then Virginia Tech on the road as their last two regular season games. That’s the appropriate finish for our team. I can’t speak for any others and a lot of times it’s just more than inventory, it’s more just than TV. And sometimes coaches and administrations have to speak up and look after the well-being of a student-athletes who have been here for 23 weeks straight after a 17 week break of not seeing their coaches, so it’s been long.
Q: What do you think the feeling is around the league that Notre Dame pops in for one year and gets to play for the championship?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think they earned the right to play for the championship through the way they played this season, but I’m sure that feelings are mixed. I think most of us would just prefer that they’re in or they’re out, and all the way in, or all the way out. That’s idealistic, and probably too simplistic but that probably summarizes what most of the ACC coaches feel. But I have respect for their program, how they played this year, the type of season they’ve had. And they have qualified, given the same chance we all have to get an ACC Championship and to their credit, they’ve earned that, which is a credit to them.
Q: Elliott Brown did not have a lot of stats coming out of the game, but he was around the quarterback on several passing plays. That was by far the most he’s played in a game at Virginia, how did how did he grade-out and what did you think of his play?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He did a nice job. He was fast, he was athletic, he did affect the quarterback. Sometimes those things matter more than what you see on the stat sheet, but really excited for him to have this chance to contribute at the level he is. And to play this week again in a similar role. It just goes back to, we have kind of another concept that matters to us when we ask simply our players to always stay ready, so they don’t have to get ready. And that way they’re ready when called on, and he has been ready and didn’t have to get ready because if he was getting ready then he wouldn’t have been able to play or play effectively, and he did. A lot of times it’s hard to stay ready when you’re not in the spotlight, but that’s life. There’s many, many families that aren’t in the spotlight and they’re just staying ready to do the best they can. And so, I think it transfers really well.
Q: Joe Bissinger, his role has grown with Dillon’s injury, how is he done in that role since he’s moved into the lineup?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Joe’s role was growing even before Dillon’s injury. He’s just been workman like, and steady, and consistent, and physical and tough and day after day after day, and with that comes confidence with that comes trust, with that comes an increased role so again that was already happening prior to Dillon’s injury. Joe was just again he’s been prepared and was preparing this whole time. As the opportunity for more snaps arrived, he didn’t have to now all of a sudden get ready, because he’s already been ready. Again, it’s kind of another thread on the theme of Elliott Brown, where players are working and working and working and when opportunity comes, they’re ready and then folks ask, ‘where did he come from’. He came from about two or three years ago, just working every day. That’s where he came from.