UVA football looks to learn from last year’s bowl disaster

Belk BowlYou remember the Military Bowl. Actually, if you’re a UVA football fan, you’ve tried hard to forget the Military Bowl. Joe Reed returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and that was it for the ‘Hoos, in a dispiriting 49-7 loss to Navy in Annapolis.

Augusta Free Press coverage of the 2018 Belk Bowl is presented by Bear Creek.

Afterward, coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged that his team wasn’t as focused as it needed to be in the weeks leading up to the game.

“A year ago, there was not a single player on our team other than three grad transfers who had ever been to a bowl game. And so, they were very happy to be there, they were excited about every possible thing that was new and different about playing postseason. That mindset, in addition to our roster, allowed us to perform to the exact result that we got. The experience kind of overpowered the preparation,” Mendenhall said Friday, on the eve of Virginia’s Belk Bowl matchup with SEC foe South Carolina.

UVA (7-5, 4-4 ACC) is a 4.5-point underdog to South Carolina (7-5, 4-4 SEC), which features a high-powered passing game triggered by junior quarterback Jake Bentley, who has thrown for 2,953 yards and 27 touchdowns this season.

The challenge of playing an SEC team definitely has the Cavaliers’ attention.

“This year, the second year of back-to-back bowl games, we know what to expect this time around, versus last time,” junior cornerback Bryce Hall said. “I think we were just enjoying it, hyped for the moment. Now there’s an expectation, there’s an urgency level that was different from last year. I think overall, we’ve done a nice job as a team preparing up to this point.”

“It’s something that we talked about as a team. These weeks can either really help us, or really hurt us. It just depends on how we approach it. I feel like, in terms of our preparation, we really took advantage of the extra time we had for this game,” senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus said.

A big part of the challenge of playing in a bowl is keeping focus and intensity with a long break in between games.

Virginia’s regular-season finale was on Nov. 23, five weeks ago.

“For the younger guys, it’s been like spring ball for them. They’ve gotten a little extra work, a little extra practice.  I think for the older guys, we spent a lot of time, still lifting, still conditioning, but also rehabbing our bodies, getting us fresh again for another game to play after a long season,” junior defensive tackle Eli Hanback said.

Conditioning, drills, final exams, then game planning for South Carolina. It’s a lot to juggle, but last year was a learning experience, even the result that no one was happy with.

“We definitely learned from last year,” senior tailback Jordan Ellis said. “I feel like last year, we were just happy with being there, and that’s kind of understandable. That was the first time being in the postseason in six years. We haven’t won a bowl game since 2005. This year, we want to get back to that feeling of winning a bowl game. That would definitely be a big step for our program, especially against an SEC program, a very respectable SEC program.”

“First time doing anything is kind of shaky. You don’t really know how to approach it or how to go about it,” Zaccheaus said. “Last year, we didn’t do it the right way. The seniors really learned from that and took a lot away from that and applied it to this year, and it made the experience and preparation a whole lot better.”

“You saw what happened last year when we really didn’t have our minds right,” Hall said. “We were just kind of there, just experiencing things. Now, we’ve learned from that process, and we have confidence going into this game that we’ve learned from last year, and now we know what to expect, and we know the kind of mindset that we need to have coming into this game.”

Mendenhall sounds like he feels good about where his team is heading into Saturday.

“I think the team has been focused. I think they’re hungry. I think they’ve been urgent and deliberative in their practice. And I think they want to win,” Mendenhall said.

Column by Chris Graham

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