Senior mentality

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Saturday was a great night to be a Virginia football fan, as the Cavaliers dominated Miami, 30-13. The win moved Mike London to 4-1 against the Hurricanes during his time at Virginia’s helm — a stat that inspired the Wahoo faithful to storm the field for the second time in as many Miami trips to Charlottesville. 

While it was wonderful for fans to see the team rebound from four straight losses, no group of people enjoyed it more than the 34 seniors on the Cavalier roster. After years of hard work with little to show for it, these players got to leave Scott Stadium with their heads held high. They got to leave as winners. 

The seniors are unquestionably the leaders of this team. They know how to win — but more importantly, they know how to rebound from loss. As freshmen, they were a part of the last Cavalier team to make a bowl game. As sophomores, they were unable to replicate their success from the previous year — and that trend continued into their junior season.

Turmoil followed this group, with fired coaches, transferring players and continued pressure to win against high-caliber opponents. Media scrutiny surrounded the team week-in and week-out. But the team held strong, performing to the best of its ability every single Saturday. 

Coming into this season the Cavaliers were predicted to do better than 2013 — but not by much. I even foolishly bet against them, calling a 4-8 season, and honestly, I thought I was being generous. But after the first week against UCLA, I wished that prediction wasn’t in print. 

This team is different from the other Virginia teams I’ve seen while a student here. They're meaner. They’re grittier. And even though they had a midseason stumble, these Cavaliers are winners.

This change is an attitude that starts with the seniors. These players are big names at all positions: Ant Harris and Henry Coley head up the defense while Kevin Parks and Darius Jennings lead the offense. These players give it their all every week and expect the same from the rest of their team.

This is why it was so fitting that the seniors had such great nights Saturday. While everyone’s heart dropped when Parks went down early in the game, I was equally pleased to see Khalek Shepherd have the game he did. His 95-yard day was the best single-game rushing performance of his career. 

Not to be outdone, though, was Jennings, who was wearing No. 17 in honor of his fellow senior Miles Gooch, whose season ended prematurely as the result of a knee injury suffered against North Carolina. The Baltimore native caught two balls for 32 yards and rushed six times for 40 yards and touchdown on jet sweeps that terrorized the Hurricanes all night. 

Defensively, who else but Harris would steal the show? Sure his protégé (this is absolutely the last time anyone can call Quin Blanding that — he’s going to be great for years to come) nabbed the one interception of the night, but Ant made several huge plays for Virginia. He was all over the field, leading the team with 10 tackles, while his three passes defensed saved at least one touchdown.

As a result of these performances, Virginia has the chance to help the seniors come full circle. With a win Friday against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers would become bowl eligible for the first time since these players were freshmen. 

I don’t want to jinx the Cavaliers, but these are not the mighty Hokies of the past that they have to beat. These are the Hokies that scored zero points in an entire regulation football game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and then lost 6-3 in double overtime. Yes, the same Wake Forest that currently has fewer rushing yards through 10 games (415) than Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine had by himself against Kansas Saturday (427). 

Regardless of the result Friday, this season was transformative thanks to the leadership of these seniors. The attitude surrounding the program seems to be different, and the team has found an identity as a defensive-minded, ground-and-pound squad. 

So while Virginia may not be flashy (except you, Canaan Severin — you keep those circus catches up please), it is not a team that can be overlooked on schedules anymore. Through their hard work and persistence through two awful years, these seniors have left the Cavaliers in a position to succeed in the future.

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