Just about anybody who looked at the schedule for Virginia heading into the season knew the Cavaliers would be underdogs in Bronco Mendenhall’s second game at UVA.
But after a blowout loss to Richmond in the opener, the question shifted from whether the Cavs could possibly pull off an upset at Oregon to whether there is any way to avoid getting blown out by the No. 24 Ducks.
Yes, it’s easy to be down on Virginia, which was handled by the Spiders from the start last Saturday. Returning players such as running back Taquan Mizzell underperformed; quarterback Kurt Benkert’s solid debut was one of the few bright spots.
Power Five conference teams aren’t supposed to resort to moral victories, but Virginia is at point where simply playing a competitive game against the Ducks would benefit the program. Despite all the negativity that came out of Charlottesville last weekend, that’s a possibility heading to Eugene.
Both Virginia and Mendenhall have a history of hanging around in games they weren’t supposed to have a chance to win. Last year, it took a last-minute comeback for Notre Dame to beat a Cavaliers team that finished second to last in the ACC Coastal Division.
Three years ago, Mendenhall was coaching BYU when the Cougars were upset by UVA in the season opener, then turned around and beat No. 15 Texas the next week.
Sure, the Cavaliers have glaring issues with the defense and the offensive line. They were pushed around by the FCS Spiders, but the Cavs were also playing their first game under a new coaching staff with new systems on both sides of the ball. It’s quite possible Virginia will be technically much sharper this time around.
Tempo will also be a huge factor. Everybody knows Oregon will want to play quickly, and it will be very difficult for the Cavs to keep up and outscore the Ducks with snaps coming at a rapid-fire pace.
Lining up and grinding it out isn’t necessarily the style that benefits Virginia, either. The Cavaliers’ best defensive players, including safety Quin Blanding, line up away from the line of scrimmage. Downfield tackling is certainly a key to slowing, if not stopping, Oregon — that is one of Virginia’s strengths.
Offensively, the Cavaliers want to see Benkert continue to make good decisions after completing more than 70 percent of his passes last week. His leadership skills should continue to develop, and there’s almost no chance the Cavaliers won’t get more out of their speedsters, Mizzell and Olamide Zacchaeus.
Mizzell never got in a rhythm against Richmond and had trouble hanging onto the ball. Zacchaeus was suspended for the first half. Both players, at their best, can give Oregon a taste of its own medicine when they get the ball on the outside with some room to run.
Mendenhall and his staff have a track record for making adjustments and never staying down for long. Virginia has at times shown some talent, even if its flaws have been too much to overcome in recent years.
The Cavaliers aren’t going to beat Oregon this weekend. That’s too much to ask at this point, but the Ducks probably shouldn’t count on a 56-14 victory either.
Virginia has something to prove. A competitive game against Oregon could be a boost by the time ACC play comes around.