In Orange Bowl defeat, Virginia sets foundation for future

uva footballVirginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, not to mention, the rest of us, learned something from the 2019 Orange Bowl.

Virginia is competitive.

Tough.

“They wanted to win this game. They prepared hard, and were a few plays away from winning the Orange Bowl,” Mendenhall said after Virginia’s 36-28 loss to sixth-ranked Florida in Monday’s Orange Bowl.

“We didn’t make those plays, which prevented that happening. Credit Florida for that. But it wasn’t because of lack of effort or lack of competitive spirit or belief that we could.”

They weren’t supposed to be competitive, tough, or able to formulate any kind of reasonable notion of being able to beat a good SEC team.

“I just shared with them that they just saw the Orange Bowl against a Top 10 football program, a 10-win team in the SEC, and they’re totally capable,” Mendenhall said. “They know they’re capable. Both teams know that we were capable. And a couple more plays, and that would have been one other amazing thing that happened this season, and I told them I love them, I’m proud of them, and I’m lucky to be their coach.”

It hasn’t been easy getting here, to say the least.

Mendenhall’s tenure at UVA began in 2016 with an embarrassing 37-20 loss to Richmond, a harbinger of what would become an ugly 2-10 first season.

No one would have any reason to have the foggiest notion that an Orange Bowl would be in the offing by Year 4, if ever, considering that Virginia Football had played one New Year’s Day brand game in the history of the program, and that one came all the way back in 1991.

How it happened: it started not with X’s and O’s, but with building a culture.

“I’m really proud of my team, the culture that we’ve established, the competitive spirit, the intensity and the camaraderie that’s displayed from beginning to end,” Mendenhall said. “We’re on a mission to just simply establish that you can have world-class academics and be at the top tier of college football as well. That’s what’s happening at the University of Virginia.”

The foundation of this 2019 team – Bryce Perkins, a JUCO transfer for whom Virginia was a last chance to prove himself; Bryce Hall, a two-star recruit who worked himself into being a projected first-round NFL draft pick; overlooked talents like Hasise Dubois, Jordan Mack, Charles Snowden – none were recruited around the expectations that they’d lead Virginia to an Orange Bowl.

“We consider ourselves a developmental program, and we take coaches and anyone that comes and hopefully can bring out the best versions of them with the right principles,” Mendenhall said.

Consider Perkins. You saw it Monday night, you saw it the past two seasons. He threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns against the SEC’s second-ranked defense Monday night, capping a two-year run at Virginia that saw him break the legendary Shawn Moore’s UVA career record for total offense.

Perkins put up 7,910 yards total offense in his two years as the starting quarterback at Virginia. Moore, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1990, had 7,897 yards in four seasons.

Not bad for a guy who broke his neck at Arizona State and ended up in JUCO ball looking for a lifeline that eventually led him across the continent.

“I am happy that Coach came all the way out to Arizona and recruited me. Didn’t know what kind of culture I was getting into when the first call came, but to come out here with guys like (Dubois) and all the things that we’ve done together and the relationships that we’ve built, and you can see it on the field, just how hard we fight for each other,” Perkins said.

“I’m not into moral victories, because we lost the game, but I’m proud of these guys, proud of how we worked, and I’m proud of just the culture we set and the standard,” Perkins said. “When I first got here, it was a new standard, but now it’s the standard now for the guys coming up, and this program is transcending, and next year these guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with. You could kind of see a glimpse of it today.

“We don’t take losing lightly, so we’re definitely going to learn from it, and I’m proud to see what the future holds,” Perkins said.

The future is, well, now, but, let’s put that on hold for the moment, because we need to properly celebrate Perkins, and everything he has meant to the Virginia program.

Which is, everything.

“There’s two principles that I endorse and believe in. First is that culture precedes performance, and the second is who first and then what, and so we worked the prior two years before Bryce came, we were working so hard on just establishing what a culture of excellence looks like, and raising expectations and raising hopes and establishing belief, and it became really clear after those two years that we needed a dynamic player and person to lead our team offensively and from the quarterback position.”

This is Mendenhall speaking, but you knew that.

“And who would have guessed, from Arizona Western and the University of Virginia, that that matches, with a coach that came from Provo, Utah, to Virginia, and now we have this relationship,” the coach said.

“Bryce is the exact person we were hopeful to have lead our program, and I’m talking person first and then player second. It was and is the perfect fit. I couldn’t have hoped for anything else. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else or anybody else. I’m just grateful.”

One other guy is a foundational element to Mendenhall: Dubois.

The senior had 10 catches on 13 targets Monday night, after 10 catches in 11 targets in the loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game three weeks ago.

Kid made himself some money in terms of his draft status for April lighting up the Florida and Clemson secondaries like that.

He’s more than a talent on the field to Mendenhall.

“Hasise and I, man, we’re not hardly even the same people that we started four years ago,” Mendenhall said. “I remember sitting in his home right when I was named head coach, and I don’t think either one of us knew what we were getting in for. But who he’s become, it just is every critical moment where a play has to be made, or a ball has to be caught, there’s Hasise, and he’s usually not running by anybody, he’s usually covered, and there’s the contested throws, the contested catches. It’s how our team is. Nothing has come easy.”

This team had set as its goal to become the second in Virginia history to win 10 games in a season, and Monday’s loss means it fell short, stopping at nine.

It feels, though, like this group wrung every ounce of football it could from what it had to offer in 2019, considering that it was really never full strength.

The first half of the season, Virginia was defined by its defense, which into late October was ranked among the best in the nation, before being beset by injury.

The second half of the season, the offense, through eight games an afterthought, as the young offensive line needed time to mature, turned into a juggernaut.

You can only imagine how good this team could have been had the immovable object defense of the first half and the unstoppable force offense of the second half had ever gotten into sync.

But, you got a glimpse of the future of Virginia Football under Bronco Mendenhall as it willed itself to the ACC Coastal title.

Much like the 2012 UVA Basketball team of Tony Bennett that played beyond its abilities to earn an NCAA Tournament berth with spit, tape, smoke, mirrors and Bennett performing a few magic tricks gave us a glimpse of what was to come in hoops.

A coaching staff trying to build a program from nothing needs to coax its first crops of recruits into playing way over their heads to be able to get access to the kinds and numbers of kids who can win championships.

We saw that happen with Bennett, and Monday night, we got a glimpse into what might be in store for Mendenhall and Virginia Football.

“Back to the point, it’s who first, and then what,” Mendenhall said. “And so as we look to find — I can’t say to find the next Bryce Perkins, so as we look to have the player at quarterback, we then look to supplement that with the player at running back, and we then have to supplement that with the players at wide receiver, and this year it was much more quarterback and receiver, but we were still looking for the exact right fit to have that presence at running back, and our offensive line grew and developed, I think, at a remarkable level, with a lot of work from being poor to average to being good, even though Florida made us pay a few times today, and that whole group comes back.

“It takes time,” Mendenhall said. “And I think we’re showing that it’s fairly rapid what’s happening. Not all the pieces are in place, but many of them are coming together and allowing us to show, I think, pretty steady improvement.”

Story by Chris Graham



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