MESSIER: Betting on Virginia
I began what has become my Tuesday morning ritual — filling out my picks for the Cavalier Daily Sports Editors’ weekly college football predictions. I made my way down the rows. Clemson, Miami, Alabama — all teams that I had no trouble choosing to win their games. And then I made it to the end of the row.
Virginia at Connecticut.
I paused for a while as I reflected on which team I should pick. Do I have faith in my Cavaliers, or do I follow the trends of history? The Mendenhall era has gotten off to a rockier start than most expected. There’s the fact that Virginia just doesn’t win on the road. The Cavaliers haven’t won a road game since 2012, when they defeated NC State in Raleigh, N.C. Even then, it was their only road win of the season.
After a few minutes of contemplation, I did it. I picked Virginia. I can’t really say that I picked them and never looked back, because since then, I have been trying to justify my reasoning, and in that, I found quite a bit to write about. So, here are just a few of the reasons why I think the Cavaliers will emerge victorious against the Huskies Saturday.
The score of Virginia’s game against No. 22 Oregon does not make it seem like the Cavaliers improved much in week two. The athletic Ducks appeared to sprint past Virginia, 44-26. However, the Cavaliers made strides in more ways than one over the course of the game, and most importantly — they never gave up.
The defense seemed to at least know what they were doing against Oregon. Don’t get me wrong — the defense still needs some serious work. They allowed the Ducks to amass 632 yards. Against Richmond, however, the defense appeared to be unprepared for Mendenhall’s 3-4 defensive scheme.
The main problem against the Ducks was simply that Virginia defenders were outmatched by Oregon’s athletic offense. Of course, this comes as no real surprise, as junior wide receiver Devon Allen, an Olympic hurdler at the 2016 Rio Games, was able to tally 141 yards and a touchdown for the Ducks. For extra emphasis, Allen celebrated his touchdown with nothing other than hurdle drills. All in all, the Virginia defense was able to hold Oregon’s offense to 44 points, which was a vast improvement compared to the 59 they allowed in 2013. Mendenhall himself noted that improvements have been made despite what the numbers may show.
“I also rely on intuition, and I can see some of the things between the numbers that are improving,” Mendenhall said. “And I think the fans will see that, and the followers of Virginia football will see that at some point.”
However, improvement was obvious for Mendenhall’s team as far as the running game goes. So much so that it made the 38 rushing yards that the Cavaliers gained against Richmond seem like somewhat of a fluke. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae led the offense to 193 rushing yards and no fumbles — a vast improvement from week one against the Spiders.
Senior big back Albert Reid put on a show in Eugene for the best night of his career. The Washington, D.C. native averaged 8.4 yards per carry en route to 126 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore speed back Jordan Ellis bounced back from an injury that cost him a spot in the Richmond game and tallied 46 yards on just six carries. For good measure, senior tailback Taquan Mizzell earned 48 yards and a touchdown. The running back improvement is something that bodes well for Virginia not just against the Huskies, but for the rest of the season if they can keep up the carries.
The last area where the Cavaliers improved against the Ducks is not necessarily quantifiable. The will of the team was noticeably improved. After Virginia fell behind Oregon 30-6 in the first half, they outscored the Ducks in the second, 20-14, behind two touchdown passes from junior quarterback Kurt Benkert. I could tell just by looking at the sideline that players were willing each other on — giving out high-fives and pats on the back after tough plays and first downs. Mendenhall noticed his team’s different attitude, too.
“We were so much more assertive, confident and decisive across the way than we were in our opener, and a little bit of that is time of just getting to know this team,” Mendenhall said. “And we played significantly better week two to week one regardless of where it is. So rather than where we’re playing, the approach to playing the game is what the focus has been on and what that looks like, and what it sounds like, and what it feels like.”
In Connecticut’s game against Navy last Saturday, they fell behind the Midshipmen 21-0 before coming back to score 21 unanswered points and tie up the game. The Huskies lost the game late, 28-24, after questionable clock management by coach Bob Diaco. If the Cavaliers are able to stifle Connecticut’s offense for long enough while letting Benkert get into a groove and the running backs literally run away with the game, Virginia has a real chance to prove themselves on the road.
At least that is my hope for Mendenhall’s squad Saturday in East Hartford, Conn. Either way, I need my picks to pull through. Especially since — much to my fellow editors’ chagrin — I’m winning.