Mendenhall: Prime time matchup with Clemson another chance to accelerate UVA program

Bronco Mendenhall

Bronco Mendenhall. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Given how the last Clemson game went for the ‘Hoos, Vegas might have been generous with the line for Saturday night’s game in Death Valley.

UVA is a 27.5-point ‘dog heading into the prime-time ACC Network matchup.

Clemson, you may remember, though you’ve tried to forget, won the ACC title game last December by a 62-17 final, and if it’s possible, the game was not as close as the score might seem to indicate.

OK, to be fair, Virginia made it interesting for a few minutes in the first quarter.

The UVA offense drove into the red zone on the first drive of the game, before a Bryce Perkins pass was picked off in the end zone on a third-down play.

Then, after Clemson responded with a quick five-play, 80-yard drive to commence the expected butt-whuppin’, Perkins took the Cavaliers back down the field again, connecting with Hasise Dubois on a 20-yard scoring strike to briefly tie the game at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.

It would all be downhill from there – 31-7 Clemson at the half, 45-14 Tigers at the end of three.

Clemson gashed the UVA defense for a ghastly 619 yards, with Trevor Lawrence throwing for 302 yards and four TDs, and Travis Etienne going for 114 yards and a TD on the ground.

Those guys are back, which, no, ain’t fair, but neither is life.

And the rematch is at Clemson, which also ain’t fair.

This just in: life ain’t fair, and you won’t hear UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall complaining about that.

“Oh, yeah. I’m thrilled to be able to get a chance to play Clemson again,” Mendenhall said Monday, as game week begins.

And, if you don’t know Mendenhall, he’s being totally sincere there.

The 2019 Clemson game, to Mendenhall, was something that he said “accelerated our program,” by exposing deficiencies, and giving the coaching staff and returning players a measuring stick for how to build for the future.

“We learned so many things about that setting, that stage, that opponent. We’re anxious to learn and apply and improve from what we showed a year ago,” Mendenhall said. “Without that game, and the outcome of that game and how it was played, we wouldn’t have been as effective or played the way we did versus Florida, so I thought we played a better football game against the University of Florida because of what we learned in our game against Clemson.

“To grow and expand and develop our program, the best teams on the biggest stages accelerate growth. So, every time we have a chance to be in a setting against a quality opponent, growth happens faster than it would if we weren’t in that stage, especially now going into Year 5,” Mendenhall said.

Senior cornerback Nick Grant is among the returnees that have had this game circled on the calendar.

“I feel like that was the first time a lot of us got truly embarrassed like that on national television, especially on a big stage,” Grant said. “We understand now going into the season, no matter what, whether we weren’t going to play them in his regular season or not, all roads lead to Clemson to win the ACC.

“This is just another step that we have to take to really attain one of our goals and be the best that we want to be,” Grant said.

Which is great to say, and great to think.

But, come on, real world calling here.

This is Clemson we’re talking about.

Preseason #1, again. Lawrence back, Etienne back, so much else back. New guys who are probably better than the guys they are replacing who are now in the NFL.

“Dabo Sweeney is still the coach. The coordinators are the same. So much of the personnel remains, and the system is so effective and has been for a long time,” Mendenhall conceded.

Here’s the thing. Virginia wants to get to where Clemson is. It might not be possible to actually be what Clemson is, but Mendenhall has made it a point to set expectations high, and get everybody on his watch to push toward those expectations.

“I certainly acknowledge Clemson and who we are playing, and they’re very skilled, and they’ve been really good. They’re one of the best teams in college football,” Mendenhall said. “Now that I’ve said that, it just really goes back to putting our plans in place, doing the best we can to execute the things that we think will work, highlighting our personnel. I, after the initial planning, don’t really acknowledge the opponents. I just try to give our team every chance to have success, regardless of who we play.

“This is a quality opponent, no question. And everyone knows that. So, now, what are we going to do? And how do we help our team? That’s really where all my focus goes. That’s weekly, not just against Clemson.”

A chance to measure, a chance to grow.

“I don’t have it weighted disproportionately in any regard, other than this is Game 2 of 2020,” Mendenhall said. “With this team, in these set of circumstances, it’s not bigger or smaller than that. It’s Game 2 of this year, with so much to work on and learn and grow from. I’m not framing it in any capacity bigger, or maybe more symbolic or substantiative than that.”

Story by Chris Graham


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