“We have to address the brutal facts. We have a long way to go to be a championship-caliber program and a consistent winner,” Mendenhall said after the Cavs finished their 2016 season with an ugly 52-10 loss at rival Virginia Tech on Saturday.
The preternaturally positive Mendenhall seemed a bit bedraggled by the reality check that the result in Blacksburg seemed to offer him.
He talked postgame about how there needs to be “realistic internal dialogue” about the future direction of the program that has now endured nine losing seasons in its last 11, and two 10-loss seasons in its last four.
“This is a massive change effort,” Mendenhall said. “It will require everything that I have, my coaches have and these players have. It can’t be for someone who hasn’t decided yet. … That’s what it’s going to take moving forward.”
The message from Mendenhall was a far cry from the talk from the coach when he took the job last December and referenced his quick success at BYU, which was coming off three straight losing seasons when he took the helm in 2005, and led the Cougars to a 6-6 finish before winning 11 games in 2006, the first of his five double-digit win seasons in his 11-year tenure in Provo.
On paper, the idea that Virginia could be on the verge of a quick turnaround was laughable. After all, the 2015 team finished 4-8 and got Mike London fired, after London’s fifth losing season in six years.
But that 2015 team had Notre Dame down in the final seconds, had chances late at Miami and at Louisville, had two fourth-quarter one-score leads on Virginia Tech in the finale.
A break here, a bounce there, and as bad as that team was, that again, got its coach fired, and there’s six, maybe seven wins there.
Coming into 2016, then, with a new coach, who had won nine games a year for 11 years at BYU, you had to assume that things would get better, that Mendenhall and his staff would correct for the series of minor issues that seemed to vex the Cavs in the London era.
Virginia, after all, returned its starting quarterback, top six rushers, six of its top seven pass catchers, depth on the lines, the top four tacklers on defense.
Alabama and Clemson had nothing to worry about, but with a non-conference schedule that replaced UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State (combined 2015 record: 27-12) with Oregon, UConn and Central Michigan (combined 2016 record: 13-23), there was hope that Mendenhall could produce something of a turnaround, at least to get six wins, no matter how cheap it would be against a weak schedule, and get things moving in the right direction.
Those hopes were dashed early, when Richmond, of the FCS level, came into Scott Stadium for the season opener and dominated the ‘Hoos in a 37-20 game that wasn’t that close, as the Spiders led 30-7 in the fourth quarter before subbing out their starters.
Midseason wins over Central Michigan and Duke were all the 2016 Cavs would manage, and of the remaining games, Virginia was only competitive in the 13-10 loss at UConn (one of the three Huskies wins this year) and, inexplicably at the time, in a 32-25 loss to then-#5 Louisville in late October (a result that makes more sense now that the Cards have backslid with late losses to Houston and Kentucky) and a 27-20 loss at Wake Forest in November that ended with a Kurt Benkert picksix putting up the deciding points for the Demon Deacons.
Seven of Virginia’s 10 losses were by double digits. The team regressed from 2015 offensively (25.8 points and 383 yards per game in 2015, 22.5 points and 352.9 yards per game in 2016), defensively (32.2 points and 411.5 yards per game in 2015, 33.8 points and 446.6 yards per game in 2016), and special teams (seriously, five made field goals all season long? Ian Frye was 17-of-22 in 2015).
The program regressed in one other key metric: attendance. The home-game turnout in 2016 was 39,929 per game, down 7.8 percent from the already dreadful 43,285 per game that left the 61,500-seat Scott Stadium at about 70 percent capacity in 2015.
So, a football program that had seemingly reached its nadir a year ago actually had some depths that still remained to be plumbed.
That was laid bare for the world to see, courtesy ESPN2, on Saturday, in the blowout loss to rival Virginia Tech, which itself has a first-year head coach, Justin Fuente, who inherited a Tech program on the wane – going just 29-23 in the final four years of the Frank Beamer regime – and somehow turned it around in one year to the point that the Hokies are back in the ACC Championship Game after a nine-win regular season.
Fuente, it should be pointed out, didn’t have an incumbent starter at quarterback coming in, as Mendenhall did at UVA, and he had to replace eight starters lost to graduation coming into 2016.
An early-season blowout loss to Tennessee seemed to portend growing pains for the Hokies, but aside from inexplicable hiccups in losses at Syracuse and at home to Georgia Tech, Tech was the Tech of old, reminiscent of those Beamer Ball teams that won 10 or more eight straight seasons, getting dominant defense and special teams to set up short fields, with the key difference being the hyperspeed offense that Fuente brought with him from Memphis.
Mendenhall is a defense guy, so the expectation was that his Virginia team would see an upgrade there, and he also brought with him from BYU his offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, who efforted to install the up-tempo offense that worked so well for them out west.
The decision in training camp to start ECU transfer Kurt Benkert over Matt Johns, the 2015 starter, put the offense a step back in terms of experience (Benkert had not played other than in mop-up duty at ECU), and the guys on the defensive side never seemed to pick up what Mendenhall wanted them to do.
Even bad teams make minor improvements over the course of a season, but not only did this UVA team regress from its 2015 predecessor, but it regressed as the year went on. Benkert actually broke the single-game school record for passing yards in the win over Central Michigan, but was benched for ineffectiveness after the loss at Wake.
Then Johns, who had been relegated to the third spot on the depth chart most of the season, threw three interceptions in the loss last week at Georgia Tech, setting up quite possibly the most inane offensive game plan from a Power 5 school in years, featuring a shuttle between Johns and Benkert that had Johns in for most of the first- and second-down situations, and Benkert in for third-down plays.
Neither was able to gain any rhythm as a result, and Johns, who had led FBS in 2015 with 17 interceptions, threw two more on Saturday, and third-string quarterback Connor Brewer got in on the act, fumbling on his first play of the day on an odd call on a third-and-long inside the Tech 30 that had him running a sprint option, and turned into a defensive touchdown for the Hokies.
With Virginia Tech gaining 579 yards of offense, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Mendenhall had Shawn Moore throwing to Herman Moore, of course.
Referencing Shawn Moore and Herman Moore in a column about the state of UVA football in 2016 is sacrilege, as I am well aware.
There’s a lot of climbing to be done to get back above the dirt at this point in time.
Mendenhall did his best even as he was being introspective to find something to build on for 2017 and beyond.
“I see a lot. I’m sure that the easy story will be not to see that, but I saw a stretch in the season where almost every area that we targeted was improved,” Mendenhall said. “There was more consistent play and improvement throughout the year. What people remember are usually the beginning and end. My job is much different than that. I look for every single thing that has improved, and I saw more consistency and a better execution in almost every phase of the game at times throughout the year.”
At least we have to hope this is Mendenhall trying to find something positive to build on for 2017 and beyond. Because if he really thinks he saw improvement in every phase of the game over the course of 2016, well, in any case, signed at $3.2 million a season for four more years, he’s your coach for the foreseeable future, UVA fans, so this is what you get.
Column by Chris Graham