Saturday was the perfect opportunity. Despite losing three straight games to ranked opponents, Virginia football had a chance to finish the regular season with a winning record, beat Virginia Tech for the second time in three years and eliminate its hated rival from bowl game contention. The Hokies had just let go of former Coach Justin Fuente, lost five of their past seven games and were a near embarrassment to a fanbase that takes immense pride in its football team. The Cavaliers were favored by a touchdown and were led by junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong — one of the best in the nation at his position. It would have been hard to write a better script for Virginia to dominate Virginia Tech and take control of a rivalry that has been out of reach for two decades.
Instead, Cavalier faithful watched Hokie fans storm their own field in celebration of a 29-24 Virginia Tech victory. Now, despite the continued growth of Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program over the last six years, this defeat puts Virginia in a precarious position. Emotions are certainly high after the embarrassing loss, and it is easy to overreact, but it is the manner in which the Cavaliers lost and the circumstances surrounding the performance that is especially alarming.
In his time in Charlottesville, Mendenhall has prided himself on creating a culture that emphasizes discipline and effort. While Virginia may not be trotting out the most talented team on a given Saturday, Mendenhall’s teams have found ways to win by avoiding mistakes and outlasting their opponents. Against the Hokies, the effort was no doubt there, but the discipline simply was not.
Much like the loss to Pittsburgh the prior week, the Cavaliers made too many head-scratching mistakes to have earned the win. In the first half, Virginia had several opportunities to completely take control of the game and coast into the second half. Up a touchdown in the beginning of the second quarter, the Cavaliers came up with a huge goal line stand to keep the Hokies out of the endzone and maintain the lead. Backed up against its own goal line, Armstrong led Virginia into Virginia Tech territory before throwing a crucial interception, potentially costing the Cavaliers a two-possession lead. After the teams traded touchdowns with the score now reading 21-14 with just minutes remaining in the opening half, Virginia forced a three-and-out. With the Cavaliers receiving the ball coming out of halftime, Virginia had a golden chance to put points on the board before the break and seize control. However, a roughing the punter penalty on fourth down on freshman inside linebacker West Weeks kept the Hokies’ drive alive, and instead of a multi-score advantage, Virginia only led 21-17.
In the second half after Virginia Tech tied the game at 24-24, the Cavaliers found themselves on yet another promising drive deep inside Hokie territory. But it was a fumble by typically-reliable senior football player Keytaon Thompson that spoiled the possession. Despite all the mistakes and a 29-24 deficit late in the fourth quarter, a Virginia Tech fumble gave Virginia one last chance. With the new life, Armstrong led the Cavaliers inside the opposing 10-yard line before Virginia was up against a momentous third down.
That is when the Cavaliers ran a play that will be remembered for years to come. Instead of trusting the elite ability of Armstrong to find a way to score with the game on the line, Virginia put its faith in a trick play. After rolling out to his right Armstrong threw a backward pass to senior offensive tackle Bobby Haskins, who had no chance to advance the ball before getting tackled for a five-yard loss. It was one of those plays where offensive coordinator Robert Anae would have looked like a genius if it worked but endlessly criticized if it did not. And it failed tremendously. The Cavaliers actually ran a near-identical play to Haskins in the 2019 Orange Bowl against Florida when — despite a penalty that erased the play — it worked to perfection. Noting its success, it was clear that Virginia left it in the playbook waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it. Arguably the most important play of the season when an ACC Player of the Year candidate is under center was clearly not the right time.
With the loss, the Cavaliers now appear helpless in a rivalry that has caused so much emotional pain to Virginia fans over the years. The Cavaliers still have a bowl game to play, but this ending to the regular season will undoubtedly leave a bitter taste to the year after what was a promising season near the end of October. Virginia will have some major questions to answer over the off-season. Among them includes the status of defensive coordinator Nick Howell, who has come under fire all season for the defense’s poor performance. However, as Mendenhall has long been considered a defensive-minded coach, much of the blame for bad defense falls squarely on his shoulders as well. The defensive issues are likely more than just a coaching problem, though, and Mendenhall has yet to make substantial headway in the recruiting world, so it is hard to pinpoint from where the improvement will come. Also in question is the status of Armstong, who is likely to seriously consider turning his focus to the NFL draft. While freshman quarterback Jay Woolfolk has shown promise, Armstrong’s departure would leave massive shoes to be filled.
With both personnel and coaching questions looming and a disappointing — to say the least — end to the regular season, Virginia seems to have taken multiple steps back in its growth as a program. Attendance took a significant step back from 2019, and following three losses at home this year, fan enthusiasm is likely to be low entering the 2022 season. Mendenhall will be in Charlottesville for the foreseeable future, but the program appears to have hit a pivotal turning point. The Cavaliers need to get back on track soon, or Virginia faithful may quickly give up on a Mendenhall tenure that started with so much potential.