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Season on the brink? Mendenhall, ‘Hoos try to get ship righted, and quick

Bronco Mendenhall
Bronco Mendenhall. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Virginia, a season removed from its first ACC Coastal Division championship and Orange Bowl appearance, is 1-3, having lost three straight, all by double digits.

And even mentioning the losing streak and the double-digit losses doesn’t describe how bad it’s been.

The Cavaliers have been outscored 48-3 in the first quarter in 2020.

The defense is giving up more than a touchdown more in points and more than 40 yards of total offense per game compared to a year ago.

The team doesn’t even have a starting quarterback right now – forced to go with a three-QB rotation with Brennan Armstrong out with a concussion suffered last week.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall likes to talk about unbroken growth in his program. Monday, he was conceding to the current situation being a “hiccup.”

“Certainly, you know, it feels like there’s been a break. And holy cow, you could you could easily say or attribute to the reasons. I’m not willing to say that. I understand the contributing factors, but to this point, we haven’t started fast. Our record certainly reflects that,” Mendenhall said.

It gets worse.

UVA is 1-3, and its next two games are against #11 Miami and #14 North Carolina.

The ‘Canes are a 10-point favorite heading into this weekend’s game back at the site of last December’s Orange Bowl.

It would be a big surprise if UNC wasn’t the favorite on the road in Charlottesville next weekend.

Which means: you’re staring a 1-5 start right in the face at this stage.

Surprisingly, the mood in the locker room isn’t the sky is falling, to hear the players tell it.

“Guys are just accepting the facts, taking responsibility, acknowledging that we haven’t played out the standard, which we normally would like to play at,” senior linebacker Charles Snowden said. “It’s all within our control. It’s not really, woe is me. It’s, get your hard hat, and let’s get ready to work and get back to playing Virginia football.”

“It isn’t defined in wins and losses, but you take that in a larger scope than, you know, just one or two particular games,” senior quarterback Lindell Stone said. “I definitely still think we’re on track with that, especially just in the culture of the program. Coach Mendenhall actually spoke about in a team meeting this past week about, like, our culture has really been established.”

Game week begins not knowing Armstrong’s status, and while the hybrid concocted by offensive coordinator Robert Anae – rotating Stone, Keytaon Thompson and Iraken Armstead – was productive in the 40-23 loss at Wake Forest, that could have been as much about the Wake staff not having had time to prepare or even conceive of the scheme.

The element of surprise wouldn’t be there with that this week.

And there’s the mess that is the defense.

With so much back from last season, the D has been a major disappointment through four games in 2020 – allowing 34.8 points and 413.5 yards per game.

The problem has been big plays – Wake gained 314 of its 483 yards on seven of its 69 plays, echoing the production of NC State (270 of its 363 yards came on 14 of its 67 plays), Clemson (364 of its 466 yards came on 18 of its 70 plays), and Duke (280 of its 342 yards came on 11 of its 78 plays).

“I think that the way the defense is playing is it’s very comparable to last season. There’s just one difference, and that’s in our big plays, giving up way too many big plays for the numbers. We’re playing kind of the exact same as we have in years past, but it’s just big plays just killing us. And that’s kind of overshadowing the rest of the picture,” Snowden said.

“Big plays are always out there. Some mistakes, a missed tackle, someone just not making a play,” Snowden said. “In order for a big play to happen, it’s easy to look at the defensive back and say, cover your man, knock that ball down. … We have to get more pressure on the quarterback, we have to get more guys in his face and cause more havoc.”

So, a lot of things to fix.

The big plays, the poor starts, the unsettled QB situation.

Bottom line to Mendenhall: “we haven’t made enough plays at the critical times to win.”

“Early downs, balls going over our head or deep down the field for our secondary has been an inconsistency we have to address. Getting our quarterback position solidified, which we had and then having Brennan go out for the last game and a half, that certainly has been a challenge. And then just the ball security, making sure we hold on to the football,” Mendenhall said.

Forgot that last one – 12 turnovers through four games, leading to 47 opponent points.

Whoo, boy.

There’s so much to sift through.

Mendenhall is, at the same time, matter of fact, and also eternally hopeful.

“My team is resilient. They’re tough,” Mendenhall said. “They’ve been through an amazing journey here already, and these guys that have been here the longest, it hasn’t been easy. There hasn’t been anything that’s been easy. We have had continued success, and we’ve had continued growth. The bottom line is, they know that’s possible. They know what’s likely. They’re just trying to expedite with this team how fast that happens.

“They don’t know how fast it happened, or what happened, nor do I, but they believe it can happen, and that’s a huge part of it. So, I don’t see any reason to think they’ll come off of that, especially when they know what they can control that will help us. Having said that, any human being, even grown-ups, there’s a threshold where it’s like ‘how much longer will this be’ or ‘can we’ or ‘will we.’ I love the part of coaching of developing young people and grit is right at the corner of that. It’s how long will you keep trying. And so that’s one of our focuses. And hopefully that will show regardless of outcome.”

Story by Chris Graham