99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Virginia kicks off in fewer than 85 days.
Bronco Mendenhall is trying to rebuild Virginia into a consistent competitor again. ~ Kris Wright

As I sifted through different potential topics for this “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series, I stumbled upon something in The Washington Post archives that I found interesting. Not the recent archives. The 31-year old archives.

How could something from so many days gone by have anything to do with the countdown to kickoff in 2018? The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series explains.

No. 82 – Now Or Then

When it comes to game shows, The Price Is Right is a classic. It features a variety of pricing games where contestants try to accurately assess the value of mostly everyday items. How much is a toaster oven or something similar.

One of the games that’s appeared on the show over the years is called “Now … Or Then” (originally called “Now … and Then”) where the concept is to determine whether the displayed price is from the present day or from the other predetermined date in history. Get three side-by-side products correct and win.

That “Now … Or Then” game came to mind when I somehow came across an old article in The Washington Post. The headline reads “Virginia’s Football Program Walks Gingerly On Tightrope” for an article dated Dec. 21, 1987. Author Steve Berkowitz wrote about the challenges that faced the UVA football program:

“And their program traditionally has had the often painful task of balancing itself upon the high wire of success without a net.

This season has been particularly tenuous. Still not quite big, strong, fast or deep enough to inflict any real harm upon the big boys, the Cavaliers lost regular season games to Maryland, a team they have not beaten since 1971; No. 13 Clemson, a team they have never beaten in 27 tries that is headed for the Florida Citrus Bowl; Georgia, ranked 14th and headed for the Liberty Bowl, and South Carolina, ranked eighth and headed for the Gator Bowl. Their victories over Virginia Tech, North Carolina and North Carolina State were not secure until the final minutes.

In a relatively injury-free season during which its quarterback had the best year of his career, the offensive line played magnificently and the defense made countless big plays, Virginia has a 7-4 record (5-2, second place in the ACC and its most conference wins ever). The Cavaliers easily could have been 8-3 and ACC co-champions. They just as easily could have been 4-7, or worse.”

In some ways, that’s where UVA has spent the last decade or more. Stuck in losing streaks against some opponents. Pulling out some close wins to get to the bowl plateau in some seasons. Relying on big plays from the defense to get by. That’s certainly where the 2017 bowl team fit into the big picture. The Hoos defeated Duke, UNC, and Georgia Tech by a combined 17 points to get to the bowl level. They lost to Navy in the bowl. This all came on the heels of a 2-10 finish in 2016.

That’s where the 1987 team found its place in Cavalier history too. Those Hoos edged Virginia Tech, UNC, and NC State by just three points in each game. They went on to beat BYU in the bowl game by six points. This all came on the heels of a 3-8 finish in 1986.

Some of the quotes in the archived article from 1987 sound so similar to the descriptions of the current Virginia program.

“I think a lot of people on the team just finally said to themselves, ‘Just because we’re at Virginia and it’s not supposed to be a football powerhouse doesn’t mean anything. We can come out and win some football games.’ We were a lot better football team than 3-8 last year. We just didn’t have the attitude to go out and win. We were like, ‘We’re Virginia, we’re not supposed to win.’ It was a matter of more or less deciding we can play with these people.

“I think all along we’ve had the talent. We started getting a lot of very good football players. We maybe don’t have as many as a lot of other people have, but I think we make up for that in a lot of areas. I mean when you come to Virginia as a football player you know you’re not going to an Oklahoma or a Nebraska or a Clemson or any place like that. You have your reasons for coming here. It’s the type of person that you’re attracted by. It’s a challenge to be able to go to U-Va., and be able to compete academically and athletically.”

That quote came from fifth-year senior wide receiver Keith Mattioli. I’ve heard players says similar things in the last year.

How about this one from junior linebacker Jeff Lageman? It sounds like something Quin Blanding might have said last season.

“Coming off a 3-8 season, we were predicted to be down in the [ACC’s] lower echelon. When you’re always coming into games as an underdog, you always go out there with something to prove. I think this team went out and tried to prove it every game. Last year a lot of people called us quitters. This year we stuck it out in the end of a lot of games. We never quit.”

Or this one from defensive end Sean Scott? I hear some Micah Kiser type echoes from the history files.

“These people who think you can’t have academics and football, they’re wrong.”

Even some thoughts from then running backs coach Ken Mack sound similar to the thoughts of UVA’s current coaches. There needs to be more depth to stay competitive and convincing some nearby talent to provide it has been a challenge.

“We have just about enough good athletes to develop some depth. This [recruiting] year can get us over the hump. We always recruited the top players, but they weren’t interested in us. They are now.”

All of those quotes came during the early George Welsh years when Virginia started to build consistency under his watch. That 1987 campaign started a string of 13 straight seasons where UVA won at least seven games each season.

The question now is whether the 2017 breakthrough to get back to a bowl game will provide similar groundwork for consistent success like the 1987 season did for the Cavaliers. That season came six years into Welsh’s tenure so that’s a much different point than Bronco Mendenhall’s second year rebuilding effort. Still, there are some similarities with the program’s challenges now … or then.

So far, the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed Jordan Mack, Jordan Ellis, and Joe Spaziani and much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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