Football stays positive ahead of Senior Day

Cavaliers host Miami following defeat at Wake Forest

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Junior quarterback Kurt Benkert looks to send the team's 20 seniors with a win on Senior Day at Scott. 

Cavalier Daily

A 27-20 defeat at Wake Forest last Saturday washed away any hope the Virginia football team had in somehow winning out, and reaching its first bowl game since the 2011-12 season.

Although they’ll end their college careers later this month having never participated in postseason play, when they step out onto their home field for the final time Saturday against Miami, Cavalier (2-7, 1-4 ACC) seniors will still be thankful and proud.

“It’s just real special to look back on what I’ve been able to do here,” senior center Jackson Matteo said. “I’m not talking about having success myself. I’m really talking about trying to set the standard for future Virginia football teams, and trying to lay down the legacy that people can follow.”

Inheriting this Cavalier team puts head coach Bronco Mendenhall in a tough spot. As he goes about overhauling the defeated culture of his players and builds a program that in time will give guys like Matteo a legacy, he also feels the need to concern himself with the more immediate.

“The easy focus is on what’s the outcome on the field and how soon we’ll win, and how soon we’ll be in postseason,” Mendenhall said. “At the same time, I want [our seniors] to have an amazing life experience, an amazing football experience and amazing relationships. And I’m very gratified in regards to that, and I think they are as well.”

That next test for Virginia is a matchup with head coach Mark Richt’s Hurricanes (5-4, 2-4 ACC). Ranked inside the AP Top 25 from the start of the season until mid-October, Miami dropped four of its next five contests to fall outside of the field. Apart from the 37-16 blowout loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the Hurricanes’ other three defeats — to Florida State, North Carolina and Notre Dame — were by seven points or fewer.

Rebounding at home last Saturday, Miami dominated a quality Pittsburgh team 51-28 to snap its four-game losing streak. With shades of Hurricane Hall of Famer and NFL great Jim Kelly, junior quarterback Brad Kaaya threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for another.

Kaaya is having an exceptional 2016 season. He’s thrown for 2,340 yards — good for 27th in the nation — and has tallied 17 touchdowns to only six interceptions. If there’s at all a weak spot for Kaaya on paper, it’s the 21 times he’s been sacked over nine games. The Los Angeles, Calif. native’s stats would indicate he isn’t rattled by the blitz, though.

By comparison, opposing defenses have brought down Virginia junior quarterback Kurt Benkert 26 times, and their success has begun to have an impact on the signal caller’s play. The transfer from East Carolina hasn’t been able to reconjure the groove he had early on in 2016.

Not coincidentally, Benkert set the school record for passing yards with 421 and five touchdowns during the only game this year in which he wasn’t sacked, nor sped up in general. When defenders are bearing down on him or chasing him out of the pocket, Benkert is not nearly as effective of a passer, and sometimes forces things, as he did in the fourth quarter at Wake Forest. Defenses have capitalized on those mistakes.

“[Kurt’s been] a little to antsy when pressure comes to leave the pocket, to think about extending the play rather than just running the play,” Mendenhall said. “There are times when receivers are open, and routes are coming open. But the pressure or illusion of pressure is just having him not quite as confident or comfortable.”

Given the likelihood that Kaaya’s offense will produce points early, plus the fact the Hurricane run defense is coming off its strongest performance in 2016, holding star Pittsburgh back James Conner to a season-low 40 rushing yards, Benkert will be asked more often than not to air it out Saturday.

Recognizing their quarterback’s self-assuredness may not be where it was before, Cavalier teammates have rallied behind Benkert.

“I said, ‘I believe in you,” Wilkins said. “I trust you. You’re in this position for a reason.’ Something along the lines of that, and I mean, it’s because it’s the truth. He’s our starting quarterback for a reason. He leads our team out every week for a reason.”

Benkert will be a big factor for Virginia, but he won’t be the focus. Saturday is about those 20 seniors on the roster. Don’t tell the Cavaliers their game against Miami doesn’t mean anything, that hardly anybody from the outside world of college football will be watching, that it will neither make them one step closer to bowl eligibility nor turn their entire season around.

Don’t tell them those things, because for Mendenhall’s Virginia team, every week is important, and every game means everything.

“We know tomorrow is going to be ‘Tackle Tuesday,’” Wilkins said earlier this week. “We already know what the game plan is. … We know how hard practice is going to be, so there is no letting up. We can’t afford to let up. Our goal is to go 1-0 this week.”

Kickoff between Virginia and Miami is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.

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