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Black Friday win for Virginia a building block for the program

uva footballWhen Bronco Mendenhall took the Virginia job back in 2015, he cited the chance to win a division championship as a building block toward making UVA a national contender.

Four years later, he has that division championship.

“It’s an essential step,” Mendenhall said after UVA’s 39-30 win over rival Virginia Tech on Friday.

The win gives Virginia its first Coastal Division title, and sends the Cavaliers to Charlotte next weekend for its first-ever ACC Championship Game.

They will be prohibitive underdogs in the matchup with defending national champion, but, whatever.

They’re in the game, two seasons after fans rushed the field to celebrate bowl eligibility, and a season removed after folks going ga-ga over the program’s first bowl win in more than a decade.

That the opportunity comes with the first win over the in-state rival that had won 15 straight in the series makes it that much sweeter.

“You can’t build a consistent conference or national contender unless you own your state. You have to win your division before you can win the conference championship. Those have to happen to have a quality football program,” Mendenhall said.

UVA Athletics fans might see a parallel to what has happened with their football team in 2019 and what they saw out of their basketball program back in 2013-2014.

That 2013-2014 group was Tony Bennett’s fifth Virginia team. In his first four seasons, UVA had one NCAA Tournament appearance and one run in the NIT, but that fifth team, with solid recruits, yes, but then, it wasn’t like the blue bloods were beating down the doors trying to get Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon, played above its heads.

A group of kids that you might have expected to take Virginia basketball from the .500 records that Bennett’s first two teams put up to maybe 20 wins a season went out and won 30 in 2013-2014, and that season set the stage for what was to come.

Bryce Hall, a preseason All-America at corner, was a two-star high school recruit. Starting quarterback Bryce Perkins broke his friggin’ neck at Arizona State and played a year of JUCO ball before being lured east.

There isn’t a blue-chipper on the two-deep – just a bunch of kids with chips on their shoulders, and a coach who knows how to get the most out of kids who have chips on their shoulders.

Friday was a coming-out party for all concerned.

“It’s a great feeling to be a part of this,” sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor said after Friday’s win. “Obviously, I don’t know what it is like to lose to them 15 years in a row, but last year was very devastating so it was nice to come out with a win.”

“Like I told a lot of people before, this means the world to me,” senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback said. “Last time we beat Virginia Tech I was seven years old, and I’m 23 now. So, to be on the team who beat the streak is the best feeling in the world.”

And, hey, it’s not over yet. There’s two more games to go for this team, and no, exactly nobody is thinking they have a prayer against Clemson, but, whatever, they’re in the game.

And it’s not like many had them beating Virginia Tech.

OK, the computers did, but Vegas set the line at a point and a half, and the dollars came in on the Tech side enough to push the betting line to three.

You have to think that had something to do with that number 15 that now means nothing anymore.

“I know four years feels like a long time to me. For those that have had it be 15, it’s hard to imagine,” Mendenhall said, before conceding: “I don’t think I can grasp right now for those fans and for the UVA faithful that have been through the rest.”

It’s OK, Coach.

We get that this wasn’t an end, but a beginning.

Story by Chris Graham