Looking ahead to the 2017 football season
Virginia hopes to begin to rise under Mendenhall
Around this time last year, it was a widely accepted consensus among Virginia football fans that a change was finally coming to their beloved program. Coach Mike London was out after several dismal years, and in came Bronco Mendenhall from Brigham Young University — a decorated college football mind with a reputation for success. “Hoos Rising” became the mantra for his his new culture at Virginia, and the school was excited to see its struggling football team finally right the ship.
As team and its fans fans soon learned, however, the program would have to fall before it could rise again. Virginia struggled to a 2-10 record last year in a season marred by heartbreaking last-second losses and unwatchable blowouts, leaving fans just as disillusioned as they were the previous year.
With his first full offseason as head coach underway, Mendenhall hopes to finally bring the Virginia football program some momentum with a clean slate. But just how much, if at all, will the Cavaliers rise this year? Let’s look deeper to find that answer.
A review of last season’s defining games
First, we revisit some of the good, the bad and the ugly from last season’s largely poor 2-10 showing. Though the record mostly speaks for itself, the team did show some flashes promise throughout the season.
vs. Richmond, L 20-37: Not the start that Mendenhall wanted to get off to in his first home opener at Scott Stadium, especially against an FCS team. The game began with a porous showing from Virginia’s rush defense that led to an opening field goal for Richmond, and didn’t get much better when Virginia fumbled the ensuing kickoff and turned the ball over. Then-junior quarterback Kurt Benkert did show some promise in his first start for Virginia, passing for 264 yards with three touchdowns with one interception.
at Connecticut, L 10-13: Virginia’s defense dominated Connecticut for mostly the entire game before letting up in the fourth quarter, allowing the Huskies to come back from a 10-3 deficit to win. Backup kicker, sophomore Alex Furbank, missed a 20-yard game-tying kick as time expired for Virginia, highlighting what would be a dreadful season-long kicking situation in Charlottesville.
vs. Central Michigan, W 49-35: Virginia’s lone home win last season was a shootout thriller between Benkert and senior Chippewa quarterback Cooper Rush. Central Michigan clawed away at an early 28-0 Cavalier lead to tie the game in the fourth quarter, before Benkert put the game away with touchdown passes on three straight possessions. The junior’s final line was an astounding 421 passing yards with five touchdowns.
at Duke, W 34-20: The Cavalier defense had a field day against freshman Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, intercepting him five times and forcing a strip sack for a touchdown with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. Freshman cornerback Bryce Hall broke out with two interceptions, as Virginia rolled into its bye week looking like it had made a turnaround.
vs. Louisville, L 25-32: Just as Virginia had looked to have all hope lost for a bowl game riding a two-game losing streak, the team came seconds away from upsetting No. 5 Louisville in a home thriller. The Virginia defense sacked eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson five times and neutralized his running prowess for the whole game, but the sophomore got the last laugh when he threw a 29-yard game winning touchdown with thirteen seconds left.
Key players to know
QB Kurt Benkert, senior: Virginia fans saw both excellence and absurdity from Benkert in his first year in Charlottesville. The East Carolina transfer showed tremendous arm strength on deep throws and scrambles, but struggled with accuracy and had a knack for throwing momentum-killing interceptions. Benkert admitted to not having mental grasp on the offense in an ESPN interview, so the hope is that he will feel more comfortable with another offseason learning the system.
TB Jordan Ellis, junior: To say Ellis has big shoes to fill is an understatement. Virginia’s two leading rushes from last year — Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid — graduated in May, leaving Ellis — who only rushed for 63 yards on the season — to shoulder the load. Perhaps he won’t miss a beat when he begins to get the lion’s share of carries, but for now, he is largely unproven.
OL John Montelus and Brandon Pertile, seniors: Montelus and Pertile join the Virginia offensive line as graduate transfers — Montelus from Notre Dame and Pertile from Oklahoma State. The Cavalier line was mediocre at best last season, so Mendenhall set out to solidify his front five on the transfer market. Though both seniors never became mainstays at their original schools, they will fight for the chance to prove themselves and help improve an area of need for Virginia.
FS Quin Blanding and LB Micah Kiser, seniors: Blanding and Kiser are lumped together because they have much in common: they are Virginia’s best and most consistent players, and they both decided to forego the NFL draft to play their fourth year at Virginia. The pair were the ACC’s leading tacklers in 2016 and earned All-ACC First-Team honors for anchoring a defense that was wildly inconsistent. Both have shown by returning to Virginia that they have invested in Mendenhall and are committed to turning around the program, so look for each to continue to play hard and be leaders on the team.
2017 Schedule Analysis
Virginia opens the season against FCS team William & Mary at home — a team not as talented as Richmond on paper, but still poses a threat as an in-state rival. The Cavaliers then get two more home games against similarly struggling FBS teams Indiana and Connecticut — who have a new coach and a returning coach, respectively — to make for a very winnable opening slate. Virginia then travels out west for a tough matchup against Boise State, who crushed the Cavaliers 56-14 on a Friday night matchup at Scott Stadium in 2015.
The Cavaliers get a bye week after their nonconference slate before starting its ACC schedule. The team will get home games against recently mediocre ACC teams Duke and Boston College in October, while traveling to face North Carolina and Pittsburgh the same month — both of whom lost their starting quarterbacks to the NFL Draft. November will be the hardest month for Virginia, as all the teams it will face won at least nine games last season — Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech.
What to expect
Virginia has a manageable schedule at home next year against some mediocre teams, while its road schedule is daunting at first glance. Much of this team’s success rides on the development of Benkert under center, and while he should improve in his second year, the skill players around him at running back and wide receiver are largely unproven. Kiser and Blanding lead a defense with some promising young pieces behind them, but the offense must be able to keep them off the field enough to stay fresh, which may be difficult with uncertainties at running back and offensive line.
Expect the Cavaliers to improve on a 2-10 record with some encouraging wins at Scott Stadium this year, but a bowl game berth may be a stretch which so many uncertainties on the roster. Hoos Rising will mostly likely continue to be a more gradual rise than most anticipated.