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Mendenhall has build at Virginia ahead of schedule at end of Year 2

uva footballVirginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall can’t just come out and say it, that his staff somehow squeezed six wins this season out of a team that should have won three, maybe four.

He’s got to say that his kids have as much talent as anybody else in the ACC, that things are progressing in Year 2, that he expects to be able to compete every time out, that Virginia football is establishing a new standard.

But you could see it Friday night in the 10-0 loss to #24 Virginia Tech.

The defense is ahead of schedule. The ‘Hoos limited the Hokies to 345 yards of total offense, 64 below their season average.

And it was a slugfest out there. A team that was beat down 52-10 in Blacksburg a year ago was in striking distance into the final minutes this time around.


But that having seen said, you know this much as well: that the UVA offense could play 100 quarters against the Virginia Tech defense, and it would still be Whatever-to-Nothing on the scoreboard.

Virginia finished with five yards rushing on 20 attempts. Even accounting for sack yardage, which in the college game comes off the rushing total, when it should come off the net passing total, as it does in the NFL, you get 20 yards rushing on 16 attempts.

And 11 of those came on a Kurt Benkert scramble. And four of the other yards came on a Chris Sharp carry that ended up being a fumble, recovered by Virginia Tech at the UVA 40, setting up the short-field Hokies score that made it a two-score game early in the third quarter.

Benkert was trying to tiptoe his way through a minefield under heavy fire all night long. When he wasn’t being sacked, he was hurried, having passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, not even able to get his feet under him on three-step drops.

It’s a simple deficiency in the offensive line, the obvious weak link on a team that has consistently gotten stellar play from its defense, its skill players on offense and its return game.

But when you can’t block to get a run game going, you’re not going to be able to pass protect, and you’re not going to move the chains enough to be able to score.

That was the issue in losses to Boston College, to Pitt, to Louisville, and finally this one to Virginia Tech, which loves to stack the box with seven guys, stick its secondary on islands in man coverage, basically daring you to try to throw the ball, because you’re not going to run on them, and if you fall for the trick of not trying to run, you’re eventually not going to be able to pass-protect, either.

Virginia fell for the trap Friday night, all but conceding from the outset that it was not going to be able to run, throwing on 12 of its first 15 snaps, and only running on 13 of its 54 snaps – not counting the four sacks of Benkert, and three Benkert scrambles, that were included in the final stats that showed 20 UVA rushing attempts.

The message boards during the game were throwing major shade at offensive coordinator Robert Anae for the play-calling, but honestly, all Anae was doing was calling a game based on what his personnel can execute.

And the personnel, well, you hate to blame the departed two years after they’re gone, but this one is still on Mike London and his staff, at least in terms of the offensive line, and its lack of depth and experience.

To wit, nine different linemen saw time Friday night; five are first- or second-year players, and a sixth, John Montelus, is a grad transfer.

The London regime, in other words, didn’t leave much to the current staff in terms of depth and experience on the O line, and that has been a key issue for Virginia in its 1-5 freefall after the 5-1 start.

Over the closing six-game stretch, Virginia was able to muster just 69.5 yards per game on the ground, averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt, while also allowing Benkert to be sacked 19 times.

Benkert’s effectiveness, not surprisingly, was diminished – his completion rate over the final six was 54.3 percent, after he had completed 63.4 percent of his passes in his first six games, and he threw 10 TD passes against four interceptions in the final six, against 15 TDs and three INTs in the opening six.

An offense that can’t run makes it harder on its quarterback, doesn’t move the chains as much, doesn’t finish drives with points as often, and puts its defense in shorter fields more often.

Football is so many moving parts, and any one of them gets squeaky, and the wheels get gummed up, and the machine doesn’t work right.

Those of us – me included – who had this Virginia football team finishing dead-last in the Coastal Division expected the gears to get out of whack early and stay that way.

Credit to Mendenhall and his staff for getting maximum mileage out of a group that the ESPN Power Index has rated below the likes of Nebraska (4-8), Tennessee (4-7) and UNC (3-8).

None of those teams are going bowling; Virginia is.

The rebuild, or rather, build, since it’s been so long that Virginia football has been anything that you can’t rightly refer to what is being done now as any kind of reconstruction – whatever it is, whatever you call it, whatever, it’s ahead of where any of us expected it to be toward the end of Year 2.

If you sat through that game as a fan, and you came in hoping against hope that Virginia would finally end the long losing streak to Virginia Tech, and you’re now demoralized, I’m telling you, don’t be.

Bronco and Co. have this moving in the right direction. They just need to get out on the recruiting trail to get some big uglies in the program to do more of the dirty work up front.

Column by Chris Graham