They did it: UVA Football finally got to block, tackle in 2020

Bronco Mendenhall
Bronco Mendenhall. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

They actually got it in. They actually played. It didn’t seem like it was destined to happen.

You know, UVA Football.

In 2020.

“It was a pretty surreal experience. There were so many times during the game I couldn’t believe we were playing and that it counted, and that it was for real,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the ‘Hoos had defeated Duke, 38-20, in UVA’s season opener on Saturday.

Credit to Duke and the ACC for moving the originally scheduled Nov. 14 game up after UVA lost its Sept. 19 game with Virginia Tech due to Tech’s issues with COVID.

This, after the Sept. 11 season opener with VMI was also scuttled, when VMI decided to wait ‘til spring to play football, along with most of the rest of the FBS Southern Conference.

Way back when, the season was to have started on Sept. 7 in Atlanta against Georgia.

Seems like a different lifetime, that one.

“Unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” Mendenhall said, understating 2020, which isn’t hard to do.

“I wanted so desperately for our players to have success on the field and have a tangible result to show for it, because of just how diligent they have been in all the protocols,” Mendenhall said.

“As you’ve seen, there’s different levels of discipline in relation to protocols. That’s just to this point, and it could change for us tomorrow, but to this point, they’ve really done a nice job.”

First game jitters

Enough about the protocols.

This was football.

Real, live, college football.

Kinda late to be starting.

Last Saturday of September, you know.

No tune-ups. ACC game. Against a team that had already played twice.

“There were nerves,” admitted Brennan Armstrong, a redshirt sophomore making his first career start at quarterback.

Damn skippy there were.

“I think there were nerves for a lot of people just because, you know, we’ve been pushed back and, you know, have different opponents all the time,” said Armstrong, who threw for 245 yards and two TDs, and added another 47 yards and a TD on the ground.

“I’m just proud that we got the W,” Armstrong said. “That was my main goal. No matter how ugly or how good it looked, just get a win. And we’ll get to the next week, and we’ll learn.”

Oh, it was ugly.

Tavares Kelly fumbled the opening kickoff, leading to a Duke field goal.

The defense blew a simple coverage that left the tight end open in the middle of a field, leading to a rumbling, bumbling, stumbling 55-yard TD pass.

Armstrong threw the laziest inside your own 20 INT you may ever see the rest of your life.

To the credit of the kids, they shrugged it all off.

“We kept saying, it’s first game jitters, first game mistakes, it’s going to happen, and everybody just stayed the course,” said linebacker Zane Zandier, who tackled everything in sight, on his way to recording a game-high 15 stops, channeling his inner Micah Kiser.

“When it comes to the first game, there’s always first time jitters,” junior tailback Wayne Taulapapa said.

It’s almost as if somebody handed them a script.

“I think just laying low and keeping calm, just remembering what we had practiced, you know, for 12 weeks straight. I think once we got that going, we’re able to keep the ball moving,” said Taulapapa, who had 95 yards rushing and two TDs on the night.

Digging deep

The fumbled kickoff, then the blown coverage on the lumbering tight end, let Duke get up 10-0 early.

Virginia rallied to lead 17-10 at the break, but Duke took a 20-17 lead into the fourth, and the ‘Hoos seemed to be reeling, their legs maybe not there, not having played a game yet.

You were worried watching at home.

The kids on the sidelines: not.

“Even when we’re down I think the third quarter, going into fourth quarter, it seemed like everybody was cool, calm, collected, and kind of feeling we were going to win,” Zandier said.

“We just needed to make those plays to pull away, and ended up doing it.”

Senior safety Brenton Nelson made the first big play, picking off a poorly-conceived, poorly-executed trick play inside the UVA 10, setting up a 10-play, 94-yard drive that put UVA ahead to stay.

“Just being resilient is a huge part of this program, and I think we’ve just trained that since I’ve been here for four years,” Zandier said.

It took resilience to get from mid-March to now – to get from having spring practice canceled, your team scattered to the ends of the earth, connected by something called Zoom that none of us had ever heard of before, then keeping the faith through 12 weeks of summer training and camp, to the first whistles that mattered.

“Just like the past week, we’re just trying to keep practicing hard, just because you get into a kind of rhythm, and it’s hard,” Zandier said. “It’s easy to go through the motions, and it’s hard to go hard every day in practice, but that was kind of just our focus. We had a good week of practice, and just having the opportunity to play game, it just was awesome, just meant the world to all of us, because of everything that we’ve gone through, and yeah, it was just so much fun to be back out there.”

Fun. In 2020.

Hooda thunk it?

Story by Chris Graham

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