GOSSAGE: “First is the worst”
My varsity basketball coach used to remind us when we were out of sync during another Monday practice or playing fatigued and struggling to hit shots in our opening game of the season, “First is the worst.” Coach Roth would repeat this over and over again, driving home the point that we would only improve with time — we had no choice.
Virginia football fans are hoping first really is the worst when it comes to coach Bronco Mendenhall’s inaugural season. The Cavaliers finished 2-10 and 1-7 in conference, which tied Duke for the worst record in the ACC. They scored the third least amount of points in the ACC, 270, and allowed the third most points, 405, ahead of just Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
I didn’t project Virginia to end the 2016 season at the bottom of the ACC Coastal Division like media members did. I didn’t think the Cavalier record would actually worsen from one year, 4-8, to the next after Mendenhall, a proven winner, arrived. Boy, was I wrong.
Results-wise, Virginia had a bad season, and maybe even an ugly one. But there were good moments. Granted, these were few and far between.
For several reasons, Sept. 24 was a good day for the Cavalier program. Virginia outscored Central Michigan, 49-35, at Scott Stadium to earn its first win of the season. Mendenhall recorded both his first victory as head coach and the 100th of his career. His players waited for him to enter the locker room before celebrating, a move Mendenhall said was “gratifying.”
In his fourth ever start, junior quarterback Kurt Benkert set the program single-game record for passing yards with 421. Benkert also tossed five touchdowns to only one interception. It all left Virginia fans feeling more positive about their team than they had in a long, long time.
There was a noticeable difference in attitude up and down the Cavalier sideline this season. Guys were up on their feet, reassuring teammates on the field, running with them step for step. The towel whip became a rallying cry, so did the swag surf.
I remember when Virginia received a sideline warning in the middle of the Duke game. The referee had every right to issue it. The bench had leaked out onto the field, shouting and clapping as someone made a big play. Rather than shying away or sitting down after the referee had intervened, the bench took a couple steps back and went crazy. The Cavaliers, including several coaches, jumped up and down, flinging bottles and towels into the air.
This season, I never once questioned the cohesiveness of Mendenhall’s team.
Benkert went from savior and school-record setter early on to soul searching back-up by season’s end, and in between it was tough to watch him lose his confidence at such a steady rate. After his back-to-back stellar performances against Central Michigan and at Duke, Benkert didn't exceed 300 yards passing again. He threw for three touchdowns in only one other contest, the 32-25 loss against Louisville.
His average adjusted quarterback rating fell from 52.2 over his first five games to 38.2 over his final six. Benkert threw one fewer interception during that span, with five compared to the six he tossed through his first five games, but he also did not have the same passing yardage. His 291-yard average fell to roughly 183 over his last six games. The ACC grind got to Benkert.
Former Cavalier wide receiver Aidan Howard filed a lawsuit in October alleging the University, administrators and coaches and players on the football team had not done enough to prevent a hazing incident in the locker room this past summer. Two Virginia receivers, junior Doni Dowling and sophomore David Eldridge, are listed as defendants, and the suit alleges that both ridiculed Howard “because of his soft-spoken and mild-mannered nature” and pressured the freshman into fighting another player. As a result of the fight, Howard allegedly suffered a concussion and orbital-bone fracture.
Wide receivers coach Marques Hagans and graduate assistant Famika Anae, the son of offensive coordinator Robert Anae, are also listed as defendants in the suit, which alleges the behavior of each coach created an atmosphere conducive to discrimination and hazing. It might not be proven, but it still isn’t pretty. Even though he isn’t named a defendant, the incident happened under Mendenhall’s watch.
I’m going to keep this bit short, because it’s too soon, too personal. I don’t want to relive it for too long. Our bitter rivals dominated us in Blacksburg. They put up 52 to our 10. From the start, the Cavaliers looked overmatched, clueless on offense with the quarterback rotation and on defense with coverage breakdowns. Our rivals outgained us 579-247 in total yards and kept the Commonwealth Cup for the 13th straight year.
There’s nothing more to say.