BYU’s affiliation with the Mormon Church gives the school a global reach, and down through the years that has certainly benefited the football program, judging by the number of players of Pacific Island descent who have donned a Cougar uniform.
Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is now in his first season at Virginia, where the Cavaliers have no built-in Pacific Island connections, but after a debut that went about as bad as one could imagine, don’t be surprised if Mendenhall and his staff will soon search the ends of the Earth for offensive linemen.
Virginia didn’t just lose to an FCS team Saturday when Richmond visited Scott Stadium; these days that happens often enough it’s not the end of the world. The Cavaliers were dominated by the Spiders from start to finish in a 37-20 loss that was already a blowout early in the fourth quarter.
“I have a clear reference point now of where we are starting from,” Mendenhall told the reporters gathered after the game. “This is a really clear indicator of the amount of work the lies ahead.”
This perhaps should have been an easy-to-see upset. Richmond is ranked in the top five of the FCS, a national title contender at that level. On the other sideline, there were sure to be some growing pains in Virginia’s first game under a brand new system on both sides of the ball.
However, considering the fact Virginia’s cupboard isn’t exactly bare — Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding were the ACC’s leading tacklers last year, Taquan Mizzell is a talented speedster in the backfield, and transfer quarterback Kurt Benkert was hardly the problem Saturday — the dominance of the Spiders was surprising.
Benkert managed to complete 26 of 34 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception, but the Cavaliers could get nothing going on the ground. Mizzell was the most coveted recruit ever to enter the program. Now a senior, he has yet to put up big rushing numbers despite his undeniable ability.
Saturday he carried seven times for seven yards, and Virginia managed just 38 yards on the ground. Mizzell has shown with his receiving ability that if he gets the ball with space to move he’s extremely dangerous, but just as it was last year, any daylight when taking a handoff behind the UVA offensive line closes quickly.
The ugly truth for Virginia’s new coaching staff is that while it may have inherited ACC-level skill players, the offensive line won’t get the job done in a Power Five conference. As good as Richmond is for an FCS team, the Cavaliers are only going to face more size and depth up front as the season goes on.
The Cavaliers have three starters back on the offensive line from last year, but given how they have performed it might be as much a curse as a blessing. Mendenhall may be able to put new offensive and defensive systems in place this year and work to establish a new culture, but actual victories are going to be quite difficult to come by until he gets his own players to man the offensive line.
Mendenhall’s track record suggests that in a few years the Cavaliers will once again play in bowl games annually. Announcers will jovially bring up Saturday’s loss as a reminder of what a challenge he inherited.
Virginia fans shouldn’t worry too much about future seasons, but perhaps they should be prepared to see their team get beat up several more times before this one is over.