It’s been a long wait between bowl games for the Virginia football team, but the Hoos are still surrounded by familiarity this week as they prepare for the Military Bowl.
For starters, the game in Annapolis, Maryland, features pregame activities in both D.C. and Maryland. The Cavaliers, of course, played against Maryland in the same region for years in the ACC. Plus, six players on the roster are listed from the state of Maryland with 13 others from places in Virginia north of Charlottesville. There is one player from Washington D.C. as well.
Navy, the opponent in the Military Bowl, has a familiar feel as well. The two programs have played 38 times previously and while they haven’t faced off since 1994, the Midshipmen use a style that UVA sees regularly. Much like conference foe Georgia Tech, Navy is an option-based offense and the defense features a lot of two-high safety looks that the Hoos have faced throughout the season.
Bronco Mendenhall and his coaching staff, of course, are familiar with option-based teams thanks to their years at BYU. Over his tenure at BYU and UVA, Mendenhall owns an 8-2 record against option teams.
The comfortable feelings stop there, though. The Hoos know that Navy will pose a tough challenge on its home field at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. While the Midshipmen own a 6-6 record this year, the program is 19-5 all-time against UVA in home games. Navy beat Pittsburgh in the 2015 Military Bowl game in this stadium.
Plus, Mendenhall sees a lot of diversity in the option scheme from this Navy group.
”They’re an option football team, but that’s not all they do,” Mendenhall said. ”The number of plays, the number of formations, and their approach is more comprehensive and complex. There’s more to defend and they’ve done a really nice job expanding on starting with Paul Johnson’s system and then going from there. That’s still the core, but it takes on more from there than Georgia Tech does.”
Still, Virginia’s defensive players think playing the Yellow Jackets each year and just seven and a half weeks ago will help. Navy, after all, enters the bowl as the No. 2 ranked rushing offense in the nation at 343 yards per game so at the base level this is still a power running football team out of the option.
At the center of much of the activity is sophomore Malcolm Perry, who cranked out two of the longest runs in school history this year with a 92-yarder against SMU and a 91-yarder against Air Force. He’s scored four touchdowns of 65+ yards this season. Perry can play either quarterback or slot back, which opens up room for QB Zach Abey to get in on the action. He put up 235 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the season opener.
Those two players have combined for 2,393 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns this season. Dealing with the duo, and the option overall, will require defensive discipline.
”Eye control,” ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Brenton Nelson said smiling. ”Eye control as a DB. We struggled a couple of times with eye control like Boston College, but Georgia Tech everybody worked really hard at it in practice. We were pointing out our men whenever they motioned and things. They caught us a couple of times, but we did alright overall”
”You just have to trust your keys and you’ve got to trust the people around you to do their job,” linebacker Jordan Mack said. ”You’ve got to do your job and you’ve got to pay attention to what you can pay attention to and not do too much.”
”They’re going to run the ball,” UVA safety Quin Blanding said. ”They’ve got two quarterbacks that can both run the ball pretty well and we’ve got to get ready for that.”
On the other side of the ball, Virginia could find room to operate if it can handle the Midshipmen’s approach. They often create Cover-2 looks to umbrella things in front of them, which at times has given UVA trouble if it can’t strike for big plays over the top.
Navy enters the bowl game in the middle of the defensive pack nationally. The D allows 164.9 rushing yards per game and 221.7 passing yards per game, which rank 64th and 62nd in the country. Cavalier quarterback Kurt Benkert threw for 3,062 yards, 25 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions this season. Receivers Olamide Zaccheaus (833), Andre Levrone (662), and Doni Dowling (632) each surpassed 600 yards receiving on the season.
”They run a lot of two high safeties, not really anything crazy that I haven’t seen,” Benkert said. ”A little bit more generic version of our defense and not as much moving around.”
Senior safety Quin Blanding carved out an impressive career at Virginia and now he gets a chance to play in his first bowl game. He’ll follow that up with an appearance in the Senior Bowl.
Blanding is the No. 1 tackler in school history and 10th all-time in ACC history with 479 career tackles. That’s the most among any active FBS players. He said that he’s had a healthy year at UVA after playing through some nagging injuries as a junior that limited his practice time.
”This whole season has been a blessing with my body,” Blanding said. ”I’ve been feeling the best, I’m been playing the best of all my career here.”
Blanding hopes that gets him a shot at the NFL where he can join a pair of safeties having great seasons in 2017.
Anthony Harris, who went undrafted out of Virginia, has found a role with the Minnesota Vikings. This season, he’s played in all 15 games with three starts. He has 16 tackles and a forced fumble for the team, which owns a 12-3 record. The Vikings have clinched a playoff spot and are in position to have an opening round bye.
The only team sitting higher in the standings in the NFC is Philadelphia. The Eagles have clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They also have an undrafted safety out of Virginia playing a key role for their defense.
Rodney McLeod signed on with the Rams out of UVA, but moved over to Philly before the 2016 season. He’s started 30 games there and is on a five-year streak as a starter in the NFL. This season, McLeod has posted 54 tackles, three interceptions, and a forced fumble.
Blanding studies both players and he’s maintained a friendship with Harris for years. That first started as a recruit looking up to a standout safety at Blanding’s school of choice, grew into starting teammates his freshman season, and has remained intact as mentor friendship still today.
”I talk to Ant all the time. He’s a really good mentor to me. He’s a brother to me, a best friend to me,” Blanding said. ”I talk to him all the time. I watch his games all the time. I watch Rodney McLeod as well just to see how he plays. He plays with a different type of swag out there and I like how he plays. The Eagles are on the rise and he helps the defense out a lot. He does a lot for that defense. And with Ant’s situation, he’s proven himself. I knew he could do it and he always talked about doing it. I’m happy to see that.”
- Senior defensive end Andrew Brown, who was ejected from the finale with Virginia Tech is “good to go” per Mendenhall with no further penalties or rules to enforce beyond the ejection and any in-house program discipline.
- Mendenhall said that linebacker Chris Peace and Brown took the “most significant jumps” from the previous season to how they played this season. Peace finished with 60 tackles and a team-leading 7.5 sacks; those stops rank fourth on the team. Here’s a Jeff White article on Peace leading into the bowl game. Brown tallied 42 tackles with 3 sacks and a team-leading 3 quarterback hurries this season.
- Entering the Navy prep period ahead of the bowl, UVA planned to use walk-on receiver Hayden Mitchell as its victory team quarterback again. Mitchell filled that role prior to the Hoos’ win against option-based Georgia Tech earlier this season. That victory lifted the program to the bowl eligible level.
- Worth Quoting: UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert on playing in the Senior Bowl … ”I just want to be more consistent. I think it will be fun to get in a system [in the pros] that I feel like I can really showcase my talents. Whatever we do at the Senior Bowl will be fun, but I’m excited for the practices, the competitiveness, and just going against the best there is.”