TOBIN: Remember the three magical words
From the start of his tenure as Virginia football’s head coach, Bronco Mendenhall instituted a phrase that became the mantra for Virginia football — “earned, not given.”
This phrase was not just used to inspire his team. Rather, Mendenhall wanted this motto to completely shift the team’s mentality. Taking over a losing football program, Mendenhall knew that he did not have an easy task in front of him. Virginia football needed a total makeover beyond how the players performed on the field — a change in culture became a necessity.
Mendenhall wasted no time in enforcing this change. In training camp, he stripped every player of their uniform and number, forcing them to wear black. His players had to earn the right to wear the orange and blue and represent Virginia. These were not givens.
Likewise, Mendenhall forced players to earn their positions at the start of the season. Starters from last season would not simply be given their spots back. Thus, players who proved themselves on and off the field, like junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, gained the right to start.
As much promise as the team showed in the preseason, seemingly everyone lost sight of Mendenhall’s motto for the first game of the season. In giving up 524 yards to Richmond, the Cavaliers were embarrassed by their FCS foe. In a game that should have been an easy win, Virginia certainly did not earn a victory.
For the next two games, Virginia’s amnesia continued. The poor defensive play never gave the Cavaliers a chance to compete against Oregon. And, after taking an early lead against Connecticut, Virginia forgot that it had to play defense without committing penalties in order to keep the Huskies off the scoreboard.
For the first quarter of the season, Virginia had not earned anything but the reputation of being one of the worst football teams in the country. Yet, over the past two games, Mendenhall’s motto finally began to resonate with the team.
Against Central Michigan and Duke, the Cavalier offense put up 83 points — 27 more points than in the first three games. Additionally, compared to only two turnovers the Cavalier defense forced in the first three games, it has caused seven over the past two.
The Cavaliers have looked like a fundamentally different team over these past two games. They have exemplified poise, resilience and focus. Instead of being passive, the players have taken destiny into their own hands, understanding that every victory must be earned. Finally, it seems like the team is beginning to remember Mendenhall’s mantra.
Unlike what I said a few weeks ago, I now believe Virginia football has a lot of potential for success this season. The tenacity with which they played against the Chippewas and the Blue Devils makes me hopeful that they can contend against some decent conference opponents.
Yet, in order to do this, the Cavaliers cannot forget the three magical words — earned, not given.
With an unusually strong ACC this year, Virginia will have to fight for victory in each of its remaining seven games. This road to success starts with a pivotal game in Scott Stadium against Pittsburgh (4-2, 1-1 ACC) Saturday.
Simply put, Pittsburgh will not be an easy opponent for the Cavaliers. Averaging 37.3 points per game, Pittsburgh knows how to score. The least amount of points the team has scored in a game this season is 28. On the defensive side of the ball, the team touts senior defensive end Ejuan Price, who leads the ACC in sacks with 8.5.
On both sides of the ball, Virginia will have to earn this victory. Its defense must continue to generate the same pressure on the quarterback as it had against Duke if it wants to slow down the Panther offense. Meanwhile, the Cavalier offensive line is facing its toughest test all season. If it cannot protect Benkert and give him enough time to make good decisions the ball, it will be game over.
The Cavaliers have a tough stretch of games going forward. No victory will be easy. Yet, the team has shown that it has the talent to compete and win games. To turn around the Virginia football program and give the Cavalier faithful something to believe in, the team must continue to remember the three magical words.
Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.