Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that Virginia beat Duke in Durham in front of 15,000 semi-interested Duke fans who generally kill time in the fall at football games waiting for basketball season to start. Virginia didn’t beat Clemson in Death Valley in front of 80,000 football fanatics who generally come to basketball games to get out of the cold.
Now, with the wet blanket out of the way, how cool was Saturday’s win against Duke?! It was nothing short of awesome. Virginia snapped a 17-game road losing streak that dates back to 2012. Let’s also recall that in 2012, Virginia lost a 42-17 drubbing at Duke. The last road win in Durham was in 2006. There is no question that this was an important win for the emerging Virginia program.
There is a lot to like about Saturday’s win. However, it also raises several questions. Good questions. Interesting questions. Not the usual Virginia football questions like “Who wants to go back to the tailgate at halftime?” or “When does basketball season start?” No, these questions are about the trajectory of the program and the pace of dramatic change over five short weeks.
What happened to that defense that opened the season against Richmond? You know, the defense that stood around all afternoon and gave up 37 points, 24 first downs, and 524 yards to an FCS school. That defense must have gone to live with Jesus because it hasn’t been around the past three games. It certainly wasn’t the same defense that stuffed Duke on consecutive fourth down conversions in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. This new defense forced six turnovers, including five picks that turned last week’s Cinderella and media darling Daniel Jones into just another overmatched freshman QB.
Side note: Virginia coined a new defensive term on Saturday. When your QB gets hit so hard he fumbles and forgets his name he has just been “Macked”. This is a much better term than “same old ‘Hoos”.
How good can Kurt Benkert be?
Virginia fans got a little over their skis when the season opened, expecting Benkert to be the second coming of Shawn Moore. While his performance wasn’t bad to start the season, its disappointment was magnified by three consecutive losses. As Virginia fans set sky-high expectations for Benkert to start the season, I think most forgot that Kurt Benkert had never started a college football game until this year. He is on game number five as a starting college quarterback.
In game four, he set the Virginia record for passing yards in a game. In number five, he threw for over 300 yards for the second game in a row and three touchdowns. More importantly, he showed excellent mobility and judgment when plays broke down. How good can Kurt Benkert be? I have no idea, but it has been more than a decade since Virginia fans asked that question about their quarterback.
What in the world is Bronco Mendenhall thinking with some of his game day decisions? Going for it early in the game on fourth down? Fake punt late in the game at midfield? Merry-go-round place kicking strategy? (Maybe as part of Virginia’s inclusiveness strategy, everyone gets a chance to kick for Virginia.)
While some of Bronco’s decisions have not played out like we would like on the field, I think they give fans some insights into Bronco’s strategy as a coach. He plays to win. Predictability is a hallmark of programs in decline. Bronco is setting the stage early in his tenure that anything is possible at any time in the game. Maybe Bronco’s strategic decision making harkens back to Blazing Saddles “he’s just crazy enough to do it.” Maybe that is what Bronco wants opponents thinking as they prepare for Virginia.
As any Virginia fan knows, this is a dramatic change from the past. “Predictably silly” used to be our decision-making philosophy. While not yet paying big dividends, Bronco’s decisions seem to be waiting for the execution to catch up. I would not be surprised to see a fake field goal, surprise on-side kick, or risky fourth down conversion play a part in a big win this season.
The biggest question Virginia fans are asking themselves now is “how many games will we win this season?” After week three, zero looked like the logical answer. When Bronco took the Virginia job he noted that he had been to 10 straight bowl games. He also stated that he planned to keep that streak alive this year. What sounded like pure folly two weeks ago is suddenly a credible claim after a big road win in Durham.