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Analytics says one thing: Mendenhall, inexplicably, does another

bronco mendenhall
UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall. Photo by Chris Graham.

A big deal was made when Bronco Mendenhall was hired by Virginia in 2015 that he was going to have a position devoted to analytics on his staff, which sounded so Moneyball, so Darden, and there is, in fact, a director of football analytics on the coaching roster.

The guy isn’t worth whatever they’re paying him; that, or he shouldn’t have been given the week off.

There was nothing that made sense in terms of the analytics to so much of what went down in UVA’s 29-24 loss to Virginia Tech.

The final margin was five. Demonstrably irrational decisions made by Mendenhall accounted for the difference, and then some.

First irrational decision: the punt-block.

Virginia Tech was punting from its end zone, inside of two and a half minutes to go in the first half, Virginia up at the moment, 21-14.

Factoring into the decision as to what to do: Virginia will get the opening kickoff of the second half.

Punt returner Billy Kemp IV is set up at the UVA 40 to field the punt, and he would fair-catch it there, not that it mattered, given what was to happen, but I’m getting ahead of the story here.

Because we’re still deciding what to do right now.

You have the nation’s fourth-ranked offense slicing and dicing the Tech defense, to the point that, your biggest concern once getting the ball would be, slowing things down, to make sure that you don’t give them any time assuming you score to be able to do anything.

The last thing you want to do is punt-block.

Why I say that: how long has it been since Virginia special teams has actually blocked a punt?

(Noah Taylor, at Pitt, 2019, is the answer.)

So, two years, pre-pandemic.

Special teams aren’t a strength of this team. The only good things that happen are a result of luck, honestly.

(Doink!)

Next question: do you really want to block the punt?

Think this through. If you block the punt, you’re likely going to score – a touchdown or safety – pretty much immediately.

At least if it’s a safety, you’re then owed the free kick, and get the ball back in addition to the two points.

If it’s blocked for a TD (last time that happened: 2009, at Miami), Tech gets the ball back, in better field position, with a chance to get either three or seven, and plenty of time to do it (as we would soon find out).

You think that through, then, and you see, we’re not that likely to block the punt, even if we do, it may open the door to Virginia Tech to get an answer before the half, and then there’s the factor of, what happens if we don’t block the punt, and in the effort we rough the punter?

Let’s go to Bronco on that one.

“We were trying to block the punt, but the clear instructions are, whatever you do, stay off the punter, and we didn’t, and so yeah, cost us three points.”

Not the usual word salad there.

West Weeks ran into the punter, it was borderline roughing, but roughing was the call, 15 yards, first down, and eventually, the Hokies converted it to three points.

Why?!

Should have been first down Virginia at the UVA 40. You’re 30 yards from a reasonable field-goal try, 60 yards from 28-14, again, with the ball to open the second half.

Worst-case: you bleed clock, it’s 21-14 at the break, again, you get first crack at the ball in the third quarter.

Instead, it was 21-17.

Next irrational decision: down 27-24 in the fourth quarter, fourth-and-2 at the UVA 18.

Four minutes on the clock. Virginia has a full complement of timeouts.

You’re not running for the first down. Virginia had 60 yards on the ground all night. No way you’re going to risk getting two yards on a handoff or keeper.

So, you’re throwing. A ball can be tipped at the line, a receiver can drop it.

Or, he can be covered. Keytaon Thompson had one-on-one on the left side of the formation, but he couldn’t break free at the line against tight coverage.

Brennan Armstrong had to pull the ball down and try to scramble, but he’d tweaked his knee earlier in the second half, and couldn’t break free.

The ensuing strip-sack led to a safety, and now you’re down five.

Why?!

You have the full complement of timeouts, four minutes left.

Why put a week’s worth of practice and prep and a day’s worth of effort on the line on a fourth-and-2 that deep in your own territory?

Even if you get the first down, you’re still 40-plus yards from a reasonable field-goal try, 70-plus yards from the end zone.

A lot, in other words, still has to happen.

High risk, no reasonable sense of certainty of reward.

Next irrational decision: the ensuing free kick.

Again, stressing this, you still have your full complement of timeouts. The free kick is from the 20, so if you onside kick, the ball is going to be recovered somewhere around the 30 or 35.

Field-goal range for Tech if it ends up with the ball. You’re now down five, so 65 to 70 yards from a go-ahead score if you’re Virginia, and you recover.

High risk, reward … iffy, at best.

Plus, Tech lines up as if it’s expecting an onside kick, with eight guys at or near the 30, two guys just behind those eight, one guy deep.

If you kick it deep, maybe angle the kick, it’s a race to the ball, all hands on deck.

Tech actually, in terms of alignment, exposed the hell out of themselves by going all-in on the onside kick.

You’d expect that from a team with an interim coach.

At the least, if you kick deep, there’s almost certainly no return, so you pin the Hokies relatively deep.

From there, get a stop from the defense, and you give yourself a fighting chance.

We know what happened. The onside kick was recovered by Virginia Tech.

No bonus points here for the fact that the Tech offense coughed it up on the next series. There’s a reason their side had an interim coach running the team; they’re so bad at this football thing that they got the other coach fired.

What’s our excuse?

Armstrong drives the team to the Tech 11, first and 10, the last big gainer being an 18-yard pass to Thompson.

Momentum is on your side.

Tech is reeling, the D on its heels.

The clock is ticking down toward a minute and a half left.

Go for the jugular, right?

First down was a QB keeper, a gain of two, an obvious attempt to bleed clock, maybe make the Hokies burn a timeout.

The thinking here is assuming that the score is already on the board, and now the biggest obstacle to the pending win is giving the Hokies enough time to answer.

Dumb assumption. We’d already seen Louisville do this in the final two minutes of a loss to Clemson earlier this year. Needing a touchdown to win, with the ball inside the Clemson 5, Louisville focused so much on trying to bleed clock that the series got to fourth down, and then Malik Cunningham, on his way to the game-winning score, tripped over his own feet on his way to the end zone.

Your priority here has to be scoring the points that you’re already counting as in the bag.

Instead, it’s second down, which ends in an incomplete pass.

Third down now. You still have the nation’s fourth-ranked offense, two wideouts with 70-plus catches, another with 1,200 yards through the air, a 6’7” tight end who bowls guys over.

Naturally, you run a screen to the left tackle.

“It’s been in our plan for a long time. And not necessarily just versus this opponent, but in a critical moment,” Mendenhall said.

A reporter asked him, is that a call you actually signed off on?

“Yeah, I thought, like the chances defensively, it’s, it’s tough. I’ve had it work against me before, so I knew it was coming.”

Tech was not fooled, which meant the ball was in the hands of a 280-pound offensive lineman, and God love Bobby Haskins, but the fate of the game should not come down to his ability to make multiple defenders miss.

Fourth down was almost a foregone conclusion. Armstrong, facing fourth-and-13, had to throw into coverage whichever way he went, and his pass to Ra’Shaun Henry had no chance.

The final series featured a wasted play, the QB keeper, an incomplete pass, the absolute dumbest play call in Virginia Football history, and another incomplete pass.

This after going for it on fourth-and-2 deep in your own territory, and that call backfiring spectacularly into a safety.

Two points there, three points from the roughing-the-kicker extending a drive resulting in a field goal.

We’re not even counting whatever would have happened with the offense on the short-field drive there at the end of the first half.

At the least, play it smart, Virginia’s last possession is for a game-winning field goal.

Hell, play it smart, it’s 24-14 or 28-14 at halftime, you score on the first drive of the second half, and this one becomes a rout.

Bronco Mendenhall seems to like to present himself as if he’s the smartest guy in the room, whatever room he’s in.

The reality of Saturday night is Mendenhall found himself outsmarted by a position coach that Tech AD Whit Babcock elevated to the big headset specifically because he didn’t want him to succeed enough for there to be clamor from the fan base to keep him on full-time by screwing up and winning games.

Story by Chris Graham


augusta free press
augusta free press