“I understand the contributing factors, but to this point, we haven’t started fast,” Mendenhall said this week during a Zoom call with reporters. “I like our culture. I like the direction. I love my team, but our execution certainly isn’t performing or isn’t being demonstrated at a level that reflects the next stage after four years.”
Virginia’s next opportunity to get on track comes Saturday night against 11th-ranked Miami (4-1, 3-1 ACC), which features quarterback D’Eriq King, a high-profile transfer from Houston who has thrown for 1,079 yards and 10 touchdowns; the latter is tied for second in the ACC this year.
The timing is not exactly ideal considering the many mishaps in Virginia’s secondary this season. In Saturday’s 40-23 loss to Wake Forest, the Cavaliers yielded 19.3 yards per completion and five receptions of at least 32 yards.
“We’re playing kind of the exact same as we were in years past, but big plays are just killing us,” said senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden, one of the team’s four captains, “and that’s kind of overshadowing the rest of the picture.”
The Cavaliers gave up 483 yards of total offense against the Demon Deacons and yielded the final 17 points of the game in the fourth quarter. Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman finished with 309 passing yards, by far the redshirt sophomore’s most this season.
A week earlier in a 38-21 loss to North Carolina State, Virginia permitted three completions of at least 25 yards, including a 32-yard scoring reception by Cary Angeline that gave the Wolfpack a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. It remains the longest catch of the season for the Wolfpack tight end.
“Our inconsistency right now is in our secondary, and that’s our topic and our focus right now,” Mendenhall said. “So not disappointed but more clear on . . . if an opponent moves the ball where it’s happening, and right now that’s our biggest area to target.”
The breakdowns on the back end are especially exasperating because of how seasoned the secondary is even with the departure of standout cornerback Bryce Hall, a fifth-round selection in this year’s NFL draft by the New York Jets.
Cornerbacks Nick Grant and De’Vante Cross, for instance, each started all 14 games last season, and safety Joey Blount played in all 14 games and started 11. Safety Brenton Nelson, the 2017 ACC defensive rookie of the year, started five games and played in eight before missing the rest of the season with an injury.
Blount, Cross and Nelson, all seniors, missed portions of the most recent game with ailments. Their status remains uncertain, according to Mendenhall, who added he expected to learn more as the week progresses.
The Cavaliers are 12th out of 15 teams in the ACC in passing defense, allowing 277 yards per game, more than 43 yards more than last season. They rank last in yards per completion (8.5) and second to last in scoring defense (34.8 points per game).
“Just need to be more consistent and then just knock down the balls that we need to knock down,” Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell said. “There were two big plays [against Wake Forest] that hurt right out the get-go that were completely obvious. We just need to make those plays that we can make.”
A hidden cause for the defensive woes, according to EJ Manuel, an analyst for ACC Network, has been the departure of record-setting quarterback Bryce Perkins, a two-year starter. Virginia has used four quarterbacks this season because first-year starter Brennan Armstrong has missed time with a concussion.
“A lot of those drives when Bryce was playing, it was 10-, 12-, 15-play drives extended or Bryce would run for a 60- or 80-yard touchdown, and the morale, momentum would be on their side,” said Manuel, a former quarterback at Florida State. “It’s not quite like that this year, so they’ve kind of got to grind it out a little more.”