Bronco looks back, to the future, with Orange Bowl looming

orange bowlYou’re not supposed to look ahead to next season when you’re still playing this season, but, what the hell?

Virginia is about to play the biggest game in its football history, but next year is probably on your mind.

UVA opens with Georgia on Labor Day Night. Think of the stretch of games ending with Georgia: win over Virginia Tech, first since 2003; first ACC Championship Game, against defending national champion Clemson; Florida in the Orange Bowl; then Georgia.

“That is why I came to the University of Virginia,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, after listing that murderer’s row of games himself on Sunday at an Orange Bowl presser.

“That was intentional. The steps have been made methodically to get to this stage. We’re learning, we’re growing, we’re developing, but we’re also comparing and contrasting and learning with each of those games what parts of our program still need attention, not only to be able to arrive and play in those games, but to win in them consistently.”

You get better playing these types of games, is the message from Mendenhall.

“As many of the games that we can play, and we’ve earned the right to play in on the stage that we’re currently in, the faster the program accelerates. And they’re essential, and at some point, it becomes normal, and it becomes expected, and then the program takes another step forward,” Mendenhall said.

OK, so, this is why you have to love this guy.

His first UVA team was 2-10, got blown out at home by Richmond.

Reporters ask him about getting blown out by Clemson, like that’s going to get him to put his head in his hands.

“Yeah, I don’t intend to put it behind us until we rectify any of the deficiencies that were exposed,” Mendenhall said of the loss to Clemson. “I intend to use it to leverage the program and moving forward every minute, every second until we become better.

“Otherwise I don’t know,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think master teachers or parents or anyone puts things behind them that they can still learn and grow from until every possible option has been exhausted from what we can learn from that. That allows people to grow and progress. So, it’s one of the most valuable catalysts, I think, maybe ever that’s been had for the program in football at the University of Virginia.”

Virginia doesn’t win eight games and the Belk Bowl in 2018 and nine games (and counting?) in 2019 without Bryce Perkins.

Perkins hands the reins over sometime late Monday night to Brennan Armstrong, the quarterback of the future.

Mendenhall thinks the future is bright with Armstrong.

“Similar but different,” Mendenhall said of the comparison between Perkins and Armstrong. “The approach and the style and the advantage that a mobile quarterback gives, I think, again, is a neutralizer while the rest of the roster is developed and grown to be where you can match maybe player for player against a team competing for the national championship in our league like Clemson, and so that gives you a better chance than waiting for and developing the other 21 players to catch up. And so, yeah, similar, but Brennan is not Bryce in terms of some of the dynamic and run effect, but he does run in a manner that is a little bit more Taysom Hill-like, and Taysom plays a lot of different positions for the Saints. He’s part linebacker, part safety, part cornerback, part kick returner, part whatever. Brennan is a little bit more like that, so we’ll just tailor the offense more in relation to that style than what Bryce is currently doing.”

Feel better about 2020 yet?

It’s not just Armstrong at QB. The team should have more depth across the two-deep.

“We’re good enough right now and deep enough to win the Coastal. We’re deep enough to lose to Clemson. And then the next step is how we fare in the Orange Bowl, which then leads us into Georgia. And so, each specific game tells us exactly where we are to make it to the 14th game with our existing roster,” Mendenhall said.

“There’s just things that happen along the way with injuries or other, and so – but we are certainly making progress. We are certainly deeper. We are certainly healthier, and we’re in the Orange Bowl intentionally and by design. And so those are all steps in the right direction as each year has been better, and I expect it to continue that way.”

But as the focus turns to Monday night in the Orange Bowl, let us now praise famous men, in specific, the men who played Virginia into an Orange Bowl.

“I think they deserve all the credit,” Mendenhall said of his senior class, the guys who endured 2-10, who qualified for a bowl, then got blown out, who went to Charlotte and won, who beat Virginia Tech and got into the New Year’s Six.

“I had them stand in the team meeting a few days ago before we left Charlottesville, and each one that stood, they’re the pioneers of this era of UVA football. Yeah, they were part of 2-10. They were part of the first bowl game or going to the first bowl game anyone on our roster had been to when we played against Navy. They were part of the win versus South Carolina last year, in that bowl game, and now they’re part of the Orange Bowl.

“I think they’re part of their accomplishments, but I’ve also heard comments to them, to our first years, of it’s not right that you’re starting with the Orange Bowl and we started 2-10,”  Mendenhall said. “There’s a message that’s being sent to them like, they’re soft because they’re not having to go through what they went through, but they’re saying it in a teasing way, and in also like a self-confirming way that we’ve helped this to where you don’t have to go through that phase.

“So, they’re proud of it, but they’re leveraging it, as well, with the young players. I hear comments all the time.”

Story by Chris Graham

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