For all the Virginia fans who have spent September panicking over the state of the program and the hiring of Bronco Mendenhall, Saturday’s 49-35 victory against previously unbeaten Central Michigan offered relief and perspective.
The Cavaliers’ first victory of the season was also the 100th of Mendenhall’s career. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to figure out that 100 victories in 11.25 seasons adds up to Mendenhall winning much more often than he loses.
Virginia is just 1-3, and it will be a significant challenge to win many more this season, but the Cavaliers have improved each week this season. They showed a level of resilience Saturday that’s been uncommon in Charlottesville the past five years. Beating the Chippewas, who already pulled off an upset at Oklahoma State this year, was a strong reminder that Mendenhall knows what it takes to build a consistent winner.
He took BYU to 11 consecutive bowl games after taking over a program coming off three losing seasons. The Cavaliers have finished below .500 four straight years, and the ACC is only getting tougher and deeper. Virginia hasn’t necessarily scheduled like a team that could benefit from some easy wins.
Yet the Cavaliers have looked more and more comfortable in their new offensive and defensive schemes each time they have taken the field. Even with three early losses, there was never much reason to suspect they wouldn’t get better with the new coaching staff.
It just takes time.
“[Coach Mendenhall] and his staff do so much for us, and they put in so much time. It just hasn’t worked out the first three weeks the way we wanted it to or expected it to,” Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert said after throwing for a school record 421 yards and five touchdowns against Central Michigan.
“We’ve just worked so hard for so long and for all of it to finally come together and for him to get his 100th win after such a heartbreak last week, there was just a lot of raw emotion in the locker room.”
Responding to last week’s loss at UConn says as much about the way Virginia is improving as anything else. Last week the Cavaliers led most of the way before falling 13-10 to the Huskies, in a game that ended on a missed field goal by the Cavaliers’ walk-on replacement kicker who was playing in his first-ever game.
In that one, the Cavaliers started fast, but the offense went to sleep as UConn rallied. Saturday UVA raced to a 28-0 lead against a Chippewa team that had come from behind to win twice already this season.
Sure enough, Central Michigan eventually tied the game at 28-all. The visitors had all the momentum and had made adjustments to shut down the quick out patterns that had worked so well for the Cavs in the first half.
Instead of folding, the Cavs scored three touchdowns in less than six minutes to put the Chippewas away.
Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, has been a bright spot in each of the first four games, but Saturday the Cavs were able to get the balance they’ve been looking for. They finally got a huge game from senior running back Taquan Mizzell, who carried 10 times for 79 yards and a touchdown and caught six passes for 89 yards and a score.
Mizzell and wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, who caught eight passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns, are outstanding weapons as Benkert’s disposal. With each week it seems the quarterback and the coaching staff are finding more ways to flourish.
Defensively, Virginia got enough pressure on CMU’s standout quarterback Cooper Rush to stymie the Chippewas’ offense for long stretches. The Cavaliers sacked Rush three times and swatted down multiple passes at the line of scrimmage.
For the first time this season, Virginia began to resemble Mendenhall’s successful teams at BYU. A win against a MAC opponent, even a solid one such as CMU, doesn’t necessarily indicate ACC success. UVA has a tough stretch ahead with Duke, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Louisville looming in October.
However, Virginia fans now can turn from the months of disappointment since their previous victory and focus on the thought that if Mendenhall stays in Charlottesville for another 11 or 12 years, they might get to celebrate his 200th victory as well.