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Was Bronco’s onside-kick call actually a bad signal to his team?

Bronco MendenhallDevil’s advocate question here, but … did Bronco Mendenhall unwittingly signal to his team that they were in over their heads with that onside kick to begin the second half at Notre Dame last week?

I’ll be honest, when I saw the play, I thought it was genius. Obviously, somebody saw something on video, maybe in the offseason, maybe in reviewing Notre Dame games in Weeks 1-3, that suggested that the Irish would be vulnerable to the onside kick on certain setups.

Mendenhall said he was close to calling for an onside kick after a first-half UVA score, “but we had the lead, and it didn’t quite seem like we needed to steal the possession yet.”

The ‘Hoos led 17-14 to start the second half, and Mendenhall finally pulled the trigger, and it worked, with Bryce Hall catching the pop-fly kick at midfield.

“With us kicking off the second half, I wanted to get the ball to score,” Mendenhall said. “The first part worked out well. We didn’t score, but we executed the kick how we hoped, and I was encouraged by that.”

OK, so, again, I admit, loved the call when I was watching live, and, yes, in the end, UVA didn’t score, though it did flip the field, and after the Virginia D held Notre Dame to a three-and-out and forced a punt, the ‘Hoos were able to start their next drive in plus territory.

The advantage ended up getting lost on a strip-sack of Bryce Perkins that led to a short-field Irish TD drive, but that didn’t have anything to do with the onside kick.

So, what’s my newfound beef with the onside kick?

Well, again, just playing devil’s advocate, but in the context of thinking through Mack Brown’s decision to go for two after scoring late against Clemson, going for the win instead of going for the tie, it occurs to me …

The reason teams do things like go for two and the win, instead of one and the tie, the reason you start a half with an onside kick, the reason you run a trick play, a double-pass, whatever, is often that you don’t think you can win straight-up.

I mean, OK, yeah, sometimes it’s just, we saw this on film study, it’s something we can exploit, why not exploit it?

I just wonder if you’re also sending a message to your team: we’re underdogs here, we need to do something outside our scheme to try to get some sort of unnatural advantage if we hope to have a chance to win.

And then, if what you try to do doesn’t work, the message sinks in.

Now, again, UVA recovered the onside kick, so, technically, you can’t say that the idea didn’t work.

Except that, actually, yeah, it didn’t work, because it didn’t lead to points, and then Notre Dame made the first big play of the second half that did lead to points, with the strip-sack.

I can tell you that, watching at this stage, after Notre Dame went up 21-17, after the onside kick, after the strip sack, it felt to me that UVA had sort of played its trump card, and still lost the hand.

What happened after wasn’t that big a surprise.

So, maybe this isn’t me second-guessing with 20-20 hindsight.

I’ll retreat now to claiming to be a devil’s advocate, though, because that’s safe space.

Column by Chris Graham

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