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And finally: We get to Rivalry Week

Bronco Mendenhall
Bronco Mendenhall. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Beat Tech!” was the mantra in 2018, and UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall conceded later that maybe he had overdone it a bit, putting so much into that one game, especially in light of how things turned out.

The Cavaliers, you may remember, came out tight as ticks, trailed 14-0 at the half, and it could have, and should have, been worse – before unleashing in the second half, scoring on four straight possessions, taking a late lead late, and, well, you also remember how that one ended.

Bryce Perkins still holds a grudge, is how that one ended.

It’s not that Virginia didn’t put its heart and soul into the 2019 game, but you could see a difference in the approach.

The ‘Hoos led at the half, had everything go wrong – and then some – in a harrowing third quarter, then had the intestinal fortitude and mental wherewithal to be able to right the ship, and this time, for the first time in 15 years, it was the Hokies that wilted in the face of pressure.

The 39-30 UVA win registered on the Richter scale, putting the engineering that went into the strength of the foundation of Scott Stadium to the test.

It also ended the inglorious streak, and Virginia fans hope started a new one.

Hey, if nothing else, Mendenhall and the players don’t have to answer endless questions from people like me about the streak, about what it will take to end it, the rest.

Which is to say, yep, it feels a mite different going into Rivalry Week this time around.

“Yeah, it’s actually much more normal than not normal,” said Mendenhall, using the word “normal” to talk about how, for once this season, the focus going into game week is on the game, and not as much on everything else.

Ahem, COVID.

“For the outside world, it’s certainly not normal, because it is the in-state rivalry game. In terms of the preparation model and the routines for coaches and staff, those are actually more normal than not,” Mendenhall said.

They’ve both already been through this once. You no doubt remember that these two were supposed to open the season against each other, way back on Sept. 12 – feels like an eternity ago now.

The game got moved because Virginia Tech was in the throes of roster issues caused by positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.

The situation surrounding the postponement gave Mendenhall and Tech coach Justin Fuente a moment to commiserate on the challenges each were facing getting ready for a football season like no other.

“Justin called, and was really transparent that they weren’t going to be able to play. And then we just had a dialogue as to what we were expecting, what we’ve already encountered. Even then each program was experiencing different challenges. We haven’t had a follow-up since, but I’m sure the dialogue would be similar,” Mendenhall said.

“Hard to predict or script anything that’s happened to this point. I just I thought it was sportsman-like. I thought it was ethical. I thought it was just really a quality thing to do, to reach out and communicate with the other head coach. And so, yeah, it made an impact on me.”

The two teams are heading, at the moment, in different directions – Virginia has won its last four; Virginia Tech has lost its last four.

Which matters little, if anything at all, when they lace them up on Saturday down in Blacksburg, of course.

“Sometimes the perception of what direction a team is going has a lot to do with just the schedule, and how that plays out,” Mendenhall said. “Sometimes you get a lot of tougher teams at the beginning of the year, and that means that you might be perceived to be a slow start. Sometimes you have tougher teams in a stretch and injuries at the end of the year and that perceives that you’re not finishing.

“In reality, after all of that, either way, it is this game. And everything else, really, is mitigated, and not much before carries much weight, quite frankly.”

That kind of describes where things were for the two back in 2018, frankly.

Virginia Tech was 4-6 going into that one, as is the Hokies’ record at the moment.

Virginia was 7-4, having just lost a heartbreaker in OT at Georgia Tech, but still flying relatively high.

There had been so much invested by that UVA team – in the winter, in cold, early morning conditioning; in spring practice, finishing out practice periods; in summer, running hills; in training camp, reaching toward the goal; throughout the season, the countdown clock in Bryant Hall reminding them when the season would close out.

Now the motivation isn’t, end the streak, but, keep the new one going.

“We have the saying here kind of stolen from a book that’s currently out – it takes what it takes,” Mendenhall said. “That does not downplay the significance of the game or the importance, but to prepare for an opponent takes what it takes. There’s so many hours, there’s so many things that have to get done. And then in bigger games, there’s additional emotion, there’s additional anxiety, there’s a different sense of personal as it becomes closer.

“Emotional things are some of the things that are different that have to be managed, and quite frankly, from my seat, managing the external environment. Usually that just gets in the way of performance. And so, I like to try to just help our team be as focused as possible, help them with the external environment, which is much more difficult now, because each player has their autonomy and social media, et cetera. Distractions usually decreased performance rather than increasing.”

It will be different, this installment in the series, to say the least.

The energy won’t come from the crowd, because it’s hard to call 250 people in a 60,000-plus-seat stadium a crowd.

Lane Stadium would normally be rocking on a Saturday night with Virginia in town.

Even with the temperature at kickoff forecast at an unseasonably decent 50 degrees, the chill in the air would be cut by the tension rising up from the hills and hollars of Southwest Virginia.

As much was made of the postponement back three months ago, dampening the excitement around a rare early-season meeting, having this one finish out the season, on a cold, chilly night, feels like, this is the way this one is supposed to play out.

“I can’t speak and won’t speak for Virginia Tech, but I think one of the values of having a rivalry game at the end of the season is motivation,” Mendenhall said. “Regardless of how your season is gone, there’s always that game. This year, maybe more than any, as you look around college football, I think there’s some teams that are just treading water and trying to make it to the finish. Others have something to look forward to and are excited for another opportunity because of a specific opponent. I think that’s what this type of game does for the players involved in college football.”

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press