BLANK: Bronco has a blueprint
Saturday’s game against Louisville was everything I want in a game. On the crisp, beautiful fall day, the Cavaliers challenged one of the best teams in the country from kickoff until the final down, whipping up a lethargic fan base into a frenzy, creating an emotional roller coaster that unfortunately ended in heartbreak for Virginia fans. As strange as it is to say about a loss, the Louisville game is exactly what coach Bronco Mendenhall should shoot for going forward. No coach can control the final outcome, but in almost every aspect, the Cavaliers did what fans had long been hoping they would do.
On offense, Virginia displayed a balanced attack against a top defense. While yards weren’t always easy to come by, the Cavaliers spread the ball around, with eight different receivers catching the ball. They also gave junior quarterback Kurt Benkert opportunities to make plays, keeping him from being sacked until the final play of the game. This was important, as Benkert was 23 of 28 for 220 yards and three touchdowns when he wasn’t pressured, and only 2 of 11 when he was.
While it may not look like it glancing at the stat sheet, the defense was incredible against Louisville, holding them to their fewest first-half points of the season. The Cavaliers consistently pressured the quarterback, with five sacks on the day, and 10 total tackles for loss. Junior defensive lineman Andrew Brown harassed sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson to the tune of a sack and six hurries. The defense was also opportunistic, picking off a pass and forcing a fumble.
Virginia also succeeded in areas that coaches think about less but are significant for fan experience. Few fans know many Virginia players, and some of the biggest in-game cheers often come when basketball players are shown on the screen. Thus, it’s vital that better known players come through for the Cavaliers.
Junior linebacker and Butkus award semifinalist Micah Kiser certainly did that for Virginia. Kiser leads the ACC in tackles on the season, and dominated Louisville with 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery. His plays were timely too, as his second sack was on third and goal in the fourth quarter, preventing Louisville from going up two scores.
Virginia also produced multiple highlight reel plays. When junior receiver Doni Dowling hurdled over a Louisville defensive back on his way to a 42-yard gain, Scott Stadium went crazy. Special teams contributed too, as sophomore returner Daniel Hamm returned a first-half punt 40 yards inside the Louisville 10-yard line. From a fan enjoyment perspective, memorable plays are crucial, and Virginia had them in spades against Louisville.
The coaching was superb as well. With the game on the line after scoring to make it 23-24, Mendenhall could’ve kicked the extra point for the tie. Instead, he went for a two-point conversion, continuing to show the bravado that excites fans and players alike. Additionally, the team was only penalized five times, for 48 yards.
All this said, Louisville was the better team Saturday without a doubt. They had Heisman talent in Jackson — the kind of player Virginia has never featured — which he showed out by going for 361 yards in the air and 88 on the ground along with four touchdowns. You can’t build a program assuming you’ll have a generational talent at quarterback, however. Mendenhall will just have to build the best roster he can, and as last weekend demonstrated, that may well be enough.
There are certainly areas in which Virginia could’ve improved — a kicker would be nice, for one. This was not a perfect performance by any means. However, to fans watching on a beautiful fall Saturday in Charlottesville, out-of-state students getting texts from curious peers across the country or alumni thrilled to have a reason to tune into Virginia football, Saturday’s performance was enough.
Former head coach George Welsh is idolized throughout the program, despite never coaching a team that finished the year in the top 10, and the Cavaliers haven’t been to a bowl game in almost five years now. Perfection is not, nor has it ever been, the standard for Virginia football. While the scoreboard didn’t show a victory, Saturday’s game provided one of the most enjoyable experiences Virginia football fans have had in years. That’s all we can ask for.