Should visions of UMBC, Mercury Hayes, and Chaminade dancing in my head?
Virginia football continued its resurrection in Durham Saturday with a dominant win over a well coached and highly disciplined Duke team. Like the Miami game last week, I am usually a nervous wreck when Virginia football has the lead, but for some reason, I was uncomfortably confident watching Virginia dismantle the Blue Devils.
Confidence is unfamiliar territory. It’s not part of who we are as Virginia fans. It is not supported by history. We have all seen too many leads across the Virginia sports universe evaporate into the heavens, obliterating the hearts of fans spanning decades of this century and last. Too dramatic? Don’t make me recount dozens of losses that built this lore over time. I’ve lived through them all. This is why, as Virginia football continues its rise to respectability, I keep looking for the trap door that is going to drop me back to reality.
It was clear after just a few games in his inaugural season in Charlottesville that Bronco Mendenhall had no idea of the scale of the train wreck he had inherited. So Bronco essentially started from scratch. There is no question that Bronco has a plan and a strategy that can win at Virginia and more importantly it is likely sustainable over time.
Bronco doesn’t have to have a roster loaded with four- and five-star players to win football games. He and his staff excel at player development and winning through hard work, teamwork, and solid execution. In so, me ways Bronco’s recruiting strategy is a little bit like running the Land for Mis-fit Toys. He finds comparatively lightly recruited kids who have attributes that are valuable to his program and his system, but they are not sure-fire national recruits that are deciding between UVa and a myriad of SEC programs. He finds kids who might be “newish” to football but excelled in other sports in high school. He finds transfers like Bryce Perkins who got lost in the shuffle and the business of college football. Most importantly, with all the kids Bronco brings to Charlottesville he installs a sense of purpose and discipline. Many fans have questioned the “earned not given” culture that denies many players jersey numbers and the privilege of dressing for games until the coaches deem the player has earned his place on the sidelines. But the results in 2017 and thus far in 2018 speak for themselves.
Bronco’s tough-love is paying dividends. Virginia is not the most talented team in the ACC, but they are delivering results as if they were. In particular, the defense is a confederation of kids not many top 25 programs wanted. But this group held Miami under 400 total yards last week, and this week, if we discount 80 meaningless yards when the game was in the books, held Duke to a grand total of 250 yards. That makes 6 opponents this year Virginia has held under 400 yards of total offense. More importantly, the defense forced 3 turnovers – two picks and yet another stop on 4th down. On paper, the Virginia defense shouldn’t be this good, but they deliver results. Most importantly, it is clear they believe they can get the job done and more often than not they do.
The offense was more consistent and more effective this week, albeit against a defense that was not as talented as Miami. In a very pleasant change of pace for Virginia, the offense has speed that can beat defenses to the pylon for a score and can outrun defenders to the chains for first downs. Again, many of these speedsters were too small for the big programs or played against light competition in high school, so Clemson and Alabama were not beating paths to their doors. But speed is speed and while Tavares Kelly is only 160 pounds and Olamide Zacchaeus might not have all-ACC hands, once the ball is in their hands, they can outrun most everyone on the field.
The best news for Virginia fans is that winning makes recruiting kids to Virginia much easier. While I have no doubt that Bronco and staff will always find under the radar kids that develop into highly productive players, he is also starting to get some love from recruits that Virginia could not have dreamed of 5 years ago. Bronco’s challenge will be keeping the blue collar, earned not given culture with kids coming to play for Virginia with a higher than usual pedigree.
I cannot believe I am going to say this, but, Virginia is poised for its best season in over 10 years. Statements like that are heresy in Virginia athletics and generally are guarantees of pending humiliation. However, I have seen enough of Bronco’s system, the discipline and commitment he instills in his players to tempt the fates and declare that Virginia football is on its way back.
Rather than thoughts of what could go wrong with Virginia football and worrying about a late-season collapse that rivals the UMBC debacle, I am as bullish on Virginia football as I have been in years. Come join the lunacy and see what can happen…or better yet come to Scott Stadium and see for yourself.
David is on Twitter @DMRayner.