Perhaps Bronco Mendenhall’s first season at Virginia is as much about establishing a personality for the program as anything. After all, with a challenging schedule even qualifying for a bowl game was always a long shot.
That idea may or may not take on a different meaning depending on how new allegations of hazing turn out. But so far on the field, for better or worse, the Cavaliers have been mighty aggressive in their approach the first half of the season, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
“I like my team,” Mendenhall said at his weekly press conference. “I like how hard they try and how they’ve embraced the culture. We’re moving up the scale of the effort and intent to position mastery and execution. We’re becoming better in terms of position mastery and playing our spots.”
But even though the Cavaliers are improving, lack of execution has hurt them multiple times this season when play-calling has been on the bold side.
On Saturday against Pittsburgh, the Cavs could have run out the clock in the final half minute of the first half and gone to the locker room with a 28-28 tie. Instead, Virginia tried to get into scoring position and quarterback Kurt Benkert threw an interception the Panthers returned for a touchdown.
The Cavaliers also had failed attempts to fake a field goal and a punt against Oregon and Duke. In a three-point loss at UConn, Virginia called a draw play late in the game, going for a winning touchdown instead of perhaps setting up an inexperienced kicker for a less-rushed attempt to tie the game.
Could a more conservative approach have slightly altered the result of a couple of games? Maybe, but Mendenhall is also trying to establish an attitude for the long term and thinks that if his Cavs begin to execute consistently, there will be no need to play it safe.
“We are a play or two away from the critical plays being made,” Mendenhall said.
“So execution is driving that. I don’t think necessarily the choices are driving it. So while we’re battling hard and closing the gap, and man, just working our guts out to get those moments, now we are working at pulling those moments off. There is a giant difference between losing close games and winning close games.”
It’s not as though aggressive play has not paid off at all for the Cavaliers this year. Benkert’s strong arm and the speed of Taquan Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus have provided some big yardage plays, particularly against Pitt.
That means you likely won’t see a change in philosophy when the Cavs take on North Carolina this weekend.
“I like to win,” Mendenhall said. “And I like to be aggressive in doing so in terms of game management. I’m pushing every boundary that I possibly can to help the program and the young men that I’m coaching have that mindset. I have expressed my philosophy to the players of how aggressive I want to be, in not only play-calling, but how they play. With that comes risk and I am accountable for that.”