University of Virginia head football coach Bronco Mendenhall watched his team capture back-to-back road victories in thrilling fashion, with Miami and Louisville each missing field goals as time expired to secure Cavalier wins. UVA welcomes Duke, a team the Hoos have dominated throughout Mendenhall’s tenure in Charlottesville, to Scott Stadium this weekend. Coach Mendenhall’s focus is on the Blue Devils, but during his latest weekly Monday press conference, many of the topics revolved around this past Saturday’s come-from-behind win at Louisville.
Redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong rebounded from an awful third quarter in which he tossed two interceptions to lead Virginia football to its first ever victory at Louisville. The Cardinals outscored the visiting Cavaliers 20-0 in the third quarter and took a 30-13 advantage on James Turner’s 38-yard field goal, which came after Armstrong’s second pick. Virginia responded with a surge of its own, scoring three touchdowns on its final four drives to snatch the victory. Armstrong completed 15-of-22 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns on those final four drives. Keytaon Thompson, UVA’s “football player” who continues to play a major role despite having a cast on his left hand/wrist, hauled in six passes for 122 yards receiving on those drives. Thompson also had a 5-yard touchdown run that cut Louisville’s lead to 30-20.
On the game-winning touchdown drive, Armstrong found Thompson for two fourth down conversions. Thompson had 68 yards receiving on the drive, including an 18-yard catch that set up Armstrong’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Grant Misch.
Armstrong earned ACC Quarterback of the Week honors for a third time this season after completing 40-of-60 passes for 487 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions versus the Cardinals. Thompson hauled in 10 catches for 149 yards and had the 5-yard touchdown rush.
Coach Mendenhall marveled at the play of this dynamic duo.
“Yeah, I think the two of them, and I’m not going so say single-handedly, because that wouldn’t be reflective or accurate, but the two of them played a critical role in our last drive, 4th down conversions, and being on the same page with lots of improvisation going on the last drive,” Mendenhall said of Armstrong and Thompson. “Those plays were as designed and those were coverage recognitions adjusted and read by both the quarterback and the quarterback playing football at a football player position at the same time that were just completely in sync. Yeah, it was just amazing to witness and watch, and I’m so lucky they’re both on our team.”
Bratton’s Big Play
Coach Mendenhall estimated that redshirt senior defensive back Darrius Bratton was only on the field for 15 plays against Louisville. One of those plays turned out to be a game-saver, preventing Louisville from taking a 37-27 lead with just over three minutes remaining.
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) October 10, 2021
For his efforts, Bratton was awarded the distinction of breaking the rock postgame.
“He was out there for a couple of reasons,” Mendenhall recalled. “He earned the chance to be out there by how hard he’s practicing and the quality of player that he is, and then there was an injury to the player that’s currently in front of him on the depth chart, and so it’s just really fun when a player gets their opportunity and then makes a play like that. It just cements trust and confidence, and so gratifying that someone is ready when they’re called on.”
An excited Bratton performed the breaking the rock ceremony on a “mastery” level, Mendenhall said.
An interesting question posed by Doug Doughty … What happens to the rock after it is broken?
“The block looks like you brought in maybe a professional salvage crew, and there’s not hardly any remnants left of players, coaches, trainers, doctors, in any game that’s significant or has special meaning,” said Mendenhall. “Yeah, I see a piece go in a pocket, a backpack, and it really doesn’t make much sweeping up afterwards. Really everyone is taking a bit, and sometimes there’s multiple breaks. There’s the initial break and then there’s kind of the after-video break to have more pieces for anyone that wants one. Everyone’s taking piece.”
What Is Targeting?
— TAY$$ (@WicksDontayvion) October 10, 2021
If anyone has good reason to ask this question, it’s Virginia star wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks. The redshirt sophomore was sidelined for most of the fourth quarter of the Miami game and was out after the first drive of the Louisville game, each the result of controversial hits. The former, seen below and commented on by NFL referee Terry McAulay, was never even reviewed for targeting despite it being an obvious call.
Yet another targeting miss from Va/Mia. I can’t understand how anyone whose job is to apply the targeting rule thinks this is not targeting.
Lowers the head and leads with the helmet.
Makes forcible contact using the crown to the opponent. pic.twitter.com/5DzfK9rUdh
— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) October 1, 2021
The hit from Louisville linebacker Yasir Abdullah resulted in Wicks suffering a concussion. The play was called targeting initially. Upon review, the referees ruled there was no targeting but called unnecessary roughness on Abdullah instead.
Confusion reigns supreme on the targeting rule, which Coach Mendenhall was asked about on Monday.
“I’ve had plenty of conversations on the field, and I’m currently at a loss for what the definition is,” Mendenhall said.
“I think everyone wants to get it right,” Mendenhall later added in response to another question about the topic. “I think the officials really do, and I think the coaches certainly do, and I think the players certainly do, and I think the league offices certainly do. “I’m willing to listen, contribute and help define anyway that I can. Really it started with player safety, and so I think first and foremost to protect defenseless players, and yeah, good indications are if there is a hit and contact and it’s head-to-head and there’s a concussion that comes out of it or a player carted off the field, doesn’t mean it’s always targeting, but probably more than likely. There’s lots of variants, and again, everyone is trying to get it exactly right, but we’re not there yet.”
“I think everyone knows the wording of the rule, the interpretation of the wording is really a challenge,” Mendenhall said. “That’s exactly where we are.”
Roster News: Hayes Enters Portal
Cornerback Josh Hayes joined the Virginia football program as a graduate transfer last offseason, heading to UVA after a successful career at North Dakota State. Safe to say, Hayes’ experience in Charlottesville has not been what he envisioned. A preseason injury hampered him to start the season, and the talented corner not see his first defensive snaps as a Cavalier until Week 4 versus Wake Forest. Hayes played 16 snaps versus the Deacs according to Pro Football Focus. The next week against Miami he was on the field for 10 snaps, and last Saturday he played only five snaps in the win over Louisville. Anthony Johnson (63 snaps) and Fentrell Cypress II (47 snaps) saw the bulk of the playing time at the primary cornerback positions.
On Monday, the news broke that Hayes is back in the transfer portal. Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked about the situation during today’s press conference.
“Most of those things are personal and private, and I think it’s best to keep it that way,” Mendenhall said. “I just really, really always want every player that comes to our program to have a magical experience and to be completely fulfilled, and that’s what they want, especially when you consider graduate transfers, and usually the very first thing I say to them is you have to get this right, this decision, and we have to get this right. Most of the time at UVA it has been, and then for various reasons, sometimes it’s not ideal for one side or the other, and I love Josh, he’s an amazing kid, young person, and we’ll see where that goes for his future. I really hope it’s exactly as he wants it to be.”
– Coach Mendenhall had no update on the status of Dontayvion Wicks for Saturday’s home game versus Duke.
– Click here to view the latest depth chart. No major changes, although there are some minor differences from last week. True freshman Logan Taylor is listed as the primary backup at left tackle to Bobby Haskins, who is now listed as the clear starter there with Ryan Nelson moving full-time to left guard. True freshman Ty Furnish is listed as the backup center behind Olusegun Oluwatimi. Redshirt freshman Jestus Johnson is no longer listed as an option at center.
These changes may not mean much this season. When Oluwatimi left for a short time with an injury versus Louisville, UVA inserted junior Joe Bissinger at right guard and moved starting right guard Chris Glaser to center. If this is an indication of the talent of the first-year offensive linemen, the future looks bright.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S OCTOBER 11 PRESS CONFERENCE, COURTESY OF VIRGINIA ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS
Q. Before the North Carolina game, there was a lot made about the success your program had had against Carolina recently. As you get ready for this Duke game, do you have to remind your players that what’s happened in the past in recent years doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what happens in the game itself?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t think so. Our focus — really the only time that comes up is right from questions and statistics during the week, and so I think during the North Carolina week, that was, okay, so that seems to be the secret against UNC and all that, so it’s not coming from me, so my job is just to buffer our players from the external environment. It’s just the next game, right, ACC game, Coastal game, this year’s version, and nothing else before or after is relevant.
That’s usually my message.
Q. How is your cardiology report after these two games?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, that’s a good one. I think mine is good, but our coaches’ wives I’ve received complaints and multiple texts, so I don’t think I’m on good terms there, which that might be more damaging than the heart issue.
Q. You mentioned it after the game, obviously what Brennan (Armstrong) is doing is incredible, but it seems like what Keytaon (Thompson) is doing is incredible, too, considering he has a cast on a hand. Brennan made a lot of key throws to him that if he doesn’t catch it, the game is over.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think the two of them, and I’m not going so say single-handedly, because that wouldn’t be reflective or accurate, but the two of them played a critical role in our last drive, 4th down conversions, and being on the same page with lots of improvisation going on the last drive. Those plays were as designed and those were coverage recognitions adjusted and read by both the quarterback and the quarterback playing football at a football player position at the same time that were just completely in sync.
Yeah, it was just amazing to witness and watch, and I’m so lucky they’re both on our team.
Q. When Keytaon (Thompson) came to Virginia, I know he was in a quarterback competition; how much do you think he expected to be the quarterback, and how would you say he’s responded to being asked to do numerous other things?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, I think he came expecting to win the job, and that’s the way we presented it, that he would have every chance to be our quarterback.
We also told Brennan (Armstrong) that prior, that we were going to have a competition, that we were going to recruit a graduate transfer, and we thought it would make our entire team and program better. Brennan welcomed that, Keytaon came, knowing that there weren’t any promises but an equal opportunity, and then he just — I’m talking about Keytaon now. He embraced everything he could do, can do, will do to help this program, in just a really special way with never anything other than optimism, hope, work, and then becoming what the team needs him to be.
Q. How would you evaluate where your run defense is, and how would you evaluate how well (Mataeo) Durant and Duke have been running the football?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s improving. I think it’s improving week in and week out, and there are certainly inconsistencies that are easy for everyone to see around that. I think you can see lots and lots and lots of progress, and so yeah, there’s two or three plays per game that right now have to be addressed and fit more appropriately and then tackled before they become big gains. In between that, yes, lots of progress. Yeah, I’m encouraged.
Q. I know it’s not exactly readjusting from a triple option, but you just played a game where your defense was very focused and keyed on a quarterback who could run. Is it difficult to switch the assignments kind of back the next week to a more traditional run game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not really because college football requires it, so it just is built into the model. You have to be diverse. You have to be able to adjust. You have to be able to do that, and you have to be able to do it in real time. Usually whoever does it fastest and best becomes the consistent programs throughout the year and within a division, and because of those challenges you just mentioned, if someone does have an off week or doesn’t adjust fast enough or has a little residue from an existing win or loss that’s still in their head, with the parity that exists, you usually suffer before you get it fixed.
Yeah, urgency is part of it, and sometimes just schematic differentials, when you go from one scheme to the other, helps with that.
Q. After Dontayvion (Wicks) went out in the game the other day, you had some big performances from Ra’Shaun (Henry) and Keytaon (Thompson). How would you evaluate this receiving corps halfway through the season and what they’ve been able to do?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, been really impressed with not only their production but their consistency. A statistic was passed on to me last week or this week, and I don’t mark or pay much attention to those. This one, however, was I think we’re the only team in the country that has four players with over 400 yards receiving already. You’ll have to verify the numbers, but to have that many speaks to the diversity, and when you lose Dontayvion (Wicks) that early and Jelani was out at times, Keytaon (Thompson) was out at times, all in the same game, Billy was the one that kept going, and he just seems to keep going.
So he’s really kind of the — I would say the story behind the entire story that we’ve been talking about. It just seems like he just keeps making plays and he’s durable and he’s tough and he’s durable and he’s tough and he makes the critical play and he’s durable and he’s tough and he makes the critical play, and the others now are becoming more like him and while that’s happening Malachi Fields is starting to emerge. So it’s been really fun to see, to watch, and there’s a reason that Brennan is having success, and certainly he’s a huge part of that, who he’s throwing to is also really helping.
Q. Kind of on that topic, (Dontayvion) Wicks, do you have a clear idea what his status will be for next week?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, I don’t, not yet.
Q. To be blunt about it, how do you fix what seems to have gone wrong in the third quarters week in and week out?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, first of all, to assess what it is, and is there any commonalities, and if there isn’t, that’s just a matter of resetting, and if those are various areas, you just keep working on them, and you make as big a deal of it as it is, and you don’t make it bigger than it is and you don’t make it smaller than it is, and you just handle it matter-of-factly with the brutal facts and the address it and you name it and you chip away at it until you see progress.
Q. Have you noticed any of those commonalities to this point, six games in?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s pretty varied, but our team is what it is at this point, and so yeah, you just look at where they are and possibly who they’re coming from, and yeah, rather than kind of disclose too much because that then is not wise on my part, we then just identify it and we work on it and identify it and work on it, and that’s what we’re doing.
Q. As you mentioned, you have four guys in the top 65 in receiving yards in the country. From your defensive background and when you go back and self-scout or game plan for a review — or review game film, how difficult is it defensively to defend all those guys, especially if they’re on the field at the same time?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s really tough, unless you have superior players. That’s why the recruiting business is what it is, and that’s why the morals and values and ethics or lack thereof in recruiting are what they are. That’s why the draft is so intriguing in the NFL. That’s why the transfer portal now is such an intriguing thing, because the easiest answer to any of it is just simply to have one player that’s more capable than the other and put them out there at the same time. If you happen to have four versus the four receivers, then that becomes a fairly easy adjustment. If you don’t have superior personnel, that becomes challenging, and that’s what most of us in college football deal with. So then it’s scheme and then it’s culture and then it’s statistics and then it’s game planning and game management and all of that, which is I think the exhilarating and exhausting nature of what college football is. As we see week in and week out, it is tough, and that’s what the numbers are saying.
Q. Have you sent in the game tape to the ACC office in relation to any of the targeting calls, or is that just football?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it’s not just football, and no, I haven’t. I’ve had plenty of conversations on the field, and I’m currently at a loss for what the definition is.
Q. Big picture you’ve got four ACC games left, with three of those at home. I was curious your thoughts on where you stand within the Coastal knowing you have so many home games left.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would love to say I’ve already looked that far ahead, but I’ve taken just the opposite and a really myopic approach with the team. It’s just this week, like we have no other games. We’re at Scott (Stadium) this week, and based on that one we’ll sit around the phone and see if someone calls us to see if we have a game next week. We’re literally just going, cliche, one at a time, and that’s the best thing I can do for our team.
Q. How can the ways the last couple games have ended be used kind of as teaching moments to remind players that every yard, every inch, every snap could be the difference between winning and losing?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, in games as the last two, you don’t really need to say a lot. I mean, even the words I would use don’t describe it. The team knows, and I’m highlighting working on the things that either contributed or didn’t contribute to how that is, but what can’t be lost is back-to-back road wins in the ACC for Virginia. Yeah, I like that a lot, and the players have worked really, really hard with lots of off-season emphasis to target playing away from home, and I’m really proud of them.
Q. Obviously any win in the conference is hard, but to win consecutively on the road, what does that do for the overall confidence of the team.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it certainly raises. If it hadn’t been done prior to the past 10 years, it probably means it’s hard.
When you add some statistical background to it, without overemphasizing it, it starts to add relevance, and those kind of numbers are, yeah, pretty special.
Q. You mentioned giving up on trying to figure out targeting; do you think that those who do the rules need to look at the punitive nature of the penalty and maybe do something like basketball where you have your first penalty is 15 yards, ejection only comes after a second?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s possible, and I think everyone wants to get it right. I think the officials really do, and I think the coaches certainly do, and I think the players certainly do, and I think the league offices certainly do.
Yeah, we’re not there yet, but man, that sounds like a reasonable solution. I’m willing to listen, contribute and help define anyway that I can. Really it started with player safety, and so I think first and foremost to protect defenseless players, and yeah, good indications are if there is a hit and contact and it’s head-to-head and there’s a concussion that comes out of it or a player carted off the field, doesn’t mean it’s always targeting, but probably more than likely.
There’s lots of variants, and again, everyone is trying to get it exactly right, but we’re not there yet.
Q. Given that nine of the last 12 games involving ACC teams have come down to the last possession and in your case the last snap, are you expecting more of the same going forward?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, every single game. There’s the parity that exists, and the ups and downs with all of us in our lives and young people and injuries that are happening when you get to the second part of the year, the dynamic of each team changes with so many different things. There’s so many similarities already and commonalities, especially on the Coastal (Division) side. That’s what I prepared our team for last week. I basically presented it as a 15-round fight, and at the end of it, the referee is holding each boxer’s hand, so to speak, and one of them is going to be raised and it’s going to go all the way down to that to know, and that’s basically how it worked.
Q. You look at culture around college athletics right now and we’re seeing instances where athletes get NIL deals and struggles start to impact them. Some of your guys were involved in that over the summer, and obviously it’s within the NCAA rules right now, but give us your keys and how you as a program try to make sure that that doesn’t impact the overall culture and performance of a team and drag them down, if you will.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, our culture is a give culture, it’s not a take culture, so we’re looking for anything that we can add value contributing to our organization. I know that runs counterintuitive to the business world and to maybe the marketplace, but my job is to build amazing young people, and it’s a team sport. So I love the idea of how can we contribute, how can we lift, how can we inspire each other in a team-first manner. That just is our culture, regardless of what the outside rules have now allowed.
I would love them to be able to benefit and manage just like the rest of us do as adults. That’s harder, not easier when you add that to school and you add that to performance, and now say add that as well and sometimes the esteem inflated or deflated that come with that deal maybe being revoked if you’re not playing up to whatever the agreement called for. Those are real-life things, and that comes with now a new sense of maturity and responsibility required. I just work as hard as I can to frame it in the idea of team first.
Q. I followed Darrius Bratton for about 10 years going back to high school, and at Virginia he hasn’t gotten a ton of playing time. Was he out there for a longer period the other day, or what put him on the field at the time when he made that touchdown-saving tackle?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I believe Darrius had 15 plays in the game, and he was out there for a couple of reasons. He earned the chance to be out there by how hard he’s practicing and the quality of player that he is, and then there was an injury to the player that’s currently in front of him on the depth chart, and so it’s just really fun when a player gets their opportunity and then makes a play like that. It just cements trust and confidence, and so gratifying that someone is ready when they’re called on.
Again, he was the player that I chose to celebrate and break the rock after the game because that play, it most likely changed, saved the game.
Q. As far as breaking the rock, do they get to keep any part of the block? What becomes of the block after it’s —
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The block looks like you brought in maybe a professional salvage crew, and there’s not hardly any remnants left of players, coaches, trainers, doctors, in any game that’s significant or has special meaning. Yeah, I see a piece go in a pocket, a backpack, and it really doesn’t make much sweeping up afterwards. Really everyone is taking a bit, and sometimes there’s multiple breaks.
There’s the initial break and then there’s kind of the after-video break to have more pieces for anyone that wants one.
Q. Did Darrius (Bratton) look like somebody who knew how to do it?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would say that he performed at a mastery level.
Q. Not to beat a dead horse on this targeting thing, but Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) was highly critical of the call that expelled their player at Virginia Tech. Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) expressed the same kind of frustration with not knowing exactly how the rule goes, and coaches trying to talk some sense into somebody about this and saying it falls on deaf ears. If there’s such a feeling among coaches that it needs to be better defined, where does it have to — what desk does it have to land on for that to actually be a discussion?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s a great question. There is a process, and there’s the rules committee, and then, yeah, there’s a long and also thorough process, and it’s not fast is what we’re finding. The feedback usually is relevant, and sometimes the feedback isn’t welcome, but when you consider the sources and the variety of sources and the volume of sources that it’s coming from, I think we all just want to get it exactly right.
We had one in Miami and we had one in our last game at Louisville, and the officials literally are scratching their head as I’m visiting with them and so am I, and we’re working together to try to get it right, and we have a ways to go.
Q. Isn’t that a problem if the officials can’t even be clear on how this is supposed to be adjudicated?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s just clear by how that is, and I think everyone knows the wording of the rule, the interpretation of the wording is really a challenge. That’s exactly where we are.
Q. With Adeeb (Atariwa) out, your defensive front has not been as experienced as maybe you thought it would be going into the year. With guys like Nusi (Malani), I know Su (Olasunkonmi Agunloye) got a little time the other day, (Ben) Smiley has played some, Jahmeer (Carter), (Jordan) Redmond, how are the less experienced defensive linemen coming along?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just as you’d expect, incrementally and positively and slowly and inconsistently, but trying really hard. Every rep is experience that is going into the vault of performance, and they are improving where everyone is racing against the clock. When you have someone that gets hurt and you’re looking for the next player to then perform the same, and normally the next player won’t perform the same because they’re not as experienced or for whatever reason, so you do your best to build, inspire and just move on, and that’s what we’re doing, and we’re making progress. I see it. Just chipping away.
Q. I forgot to mention Faumui. Has he returned to his 2019 kind of productivity level yet?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The last couple games I’ve really been impressed with him. It’s hard for me to remember 2019. But I think he’s done a nice job and trending in the right direction the last two weeks.
Q. Mataeo Durant, the running back, what does he do well, his skill set?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Versatility. Yeah, just runs for power, runs for speed. He’s tough. Again, I think the system, again, we’re talking about David Cutcliffe (Duke head coach) I think is an exceptional football coach and person, and the system is really well designed. So they’re using their running back exactly as he should and needs to be used and getting a lot of production out of him.
It’s not only the player but it’s also the coaching.
Q. I asked you last week about Josh Hayes and we see his name popping up in the portal. Can you take us behind the scenes how that came about?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Probably not. Most of those things are personal and private, and I think it’s best to keep it that way. I just really, really always want every player that comes to our program to have a magical experience and to be completely fulfilled, and that’s what they want, especially when you consider graduate transfers, and usually the very first thing I say to them is you have to get this right, this decision, and we have to get this right. Most of the time at UVA it has been, and then for various reasons, sometimes it’s not ideal for one side or the other, and I love Josh, he’s an amazing kid, young person, and we’ll see where that goes for his future. I really hope it’s exactly as he wants it to be.
Q. Somebody on here kept asking you why you were playing Brennan Armstrong late in games in the fourth quarter. You said it was a cultural thing to finish games. Did Louisville kind of explain what you were talking about there? Is that what you were referencing?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I hope the last two weeks explained it, and sometimes, yeah, it’s not explainable at the time, and afterwards it’s explainable. Maybe this will be one of those times. I want our team to battle and fight and claw to the very, very, very end until it says double zero and then we see what happens. Who better than to have our quarterback lead us.
That’s what we’ve been doing.