Bronco Mendenhall still is in a learning phase with the Virginia Cavaliers. Each of the first five games has provided insight into the team’s mentality and personality; preseason questions about how players would react after unexpected losses and close wins, how quickly they would absorb tweaks in the new schemes and what keeps them focused in practice have been answered.
But inside a raucous locker room after Virginia’s 34-20 win at Duke on Oct. 1 — amid the exultation of the Cavaliers’ first road victory since 2012 — Mendenhall wondered how his team would handle a bye week. Would it kill any momentum Virginia had built with consecutive wins? Or reenergize the team as it looks ahead to Pittsburgh on Saturday in Charlottesville, then North Carolina and No. 7 Louisville later this month?
Mendenhall believed the Cavaliers had been improving steadily since their early-season losses because they had a game at the end of each week to work toward and for which they could set tangible goals in practice.
“So without that — I wasn’t quite sure the program was mature enough, [or] how they would approach practice,” Mendenhall said Monday in his weekly news conference. “But we did a nice job — from the minute we finished celebrating in Duke’s locker room, I framed this as, ‘This will be a difficult week.’ ”
Virginia (2-3, 1-0 ACC) ramped up practices while it was idle. The team evaluated itself early in the week before beginning to prepare for the style of play from Pittsburgh (4-2, 1-1) toward the end.
Without the measuring stick of a game last Saturday, Mendenhall instead judged development on “chemistry and demeanor.”
(Pittsburgh, meanwhile, beat Georgia Tech, 37-34, thanks to a last-second field goal by Chris Blewitt, a West Potomac High alum.)
At Saturday morning’s practice, Mendenhall was pleased to find that he had to keep some of his players from getting too aggressive with each other.
“As hard as we worked during the bye week, they were eager to practice Saturday morning,” Mendenhall said. “They were eager to run into each other. They were eager to compete, and they’re passionate about improving. So even though we worked hard the whole week, I found myself having to step back or stop things a little bit short because of how it was escalating. And so I gauged it based on that.”
After that positive sign, Virginia spent the rest of the day bonding in a way only Mendenhall would have it.
Mendenhall, a Utah native, has four horses on his property in Charlottesville. Months of renovations on his house were finally finished. So Saturday, in the pouring rain, the Cavaliers saddled up.
Mendenhall “taught every single one of us how to ride,” said 300-pound senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins, “every single one of us that wanted to get on. . . . It was an amazing experience.”
Before Saturday, much of the team-building that occurred in spring and preseason happened during intense workouts, not a tour around their coach’s house on horseback. Horseback riding was a fun bonding opportunity and, for Mendenhall, a chance to forge relationships and gain insight into his team without playing a game.
Mendenhall also wanted to give his players, many of whom had never been on a horse, a new experience.
“I wanted to continue to form great relationships and a connection with the team. . . . It was four and a half hours of players in line standing out in the rain in the middle of our pasture, taking them four at a time — myself and three, three at a time. There’s one horse they’re not ready for called Hot Rod, and I kept him. Because injuries during a bye week would not have been very smart,” Mendenhall said.
“Rather than play a football game, we had a chance to become closer as a team, and that set the framework and the stage for us moving forward for the rest of the season.”
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville
When: 12:30 p.m. Eastern, Saturday
TV: WDCA-20 (in D.C. area)/ACC Network
Stayin’ alive: The Cavaliers are looking to stay in the ACC Coastal Division race against a Pittsburgh team coming off of an emotional 37-34 win over Georgia Tech. Virginia will also have a little bit of history on its mind in Saturday’s homecoming game, as the Panthers haven’t won in Charlottesville since 1953.
Flying high: Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert has bumped Virginia’s passing game of late. Despite a pass efficiency rating that ranks last in the ACC, the junior transfer threw for 757 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions in the Cavaliers’ past two wins, against Central Michigan and Duke. Benkert could have another successful day against a Pittsburgh defense that’s been surprisingly disappointing this season and allowed Georgia Tech an average 13 yards per passing attempt. The Panthers’ defense ranks 10th overall in the ACC, allowing 400.7 yards per game.
Don’t rush: What Pittsburgh lacks in defense it makes up for with a strong run game. Led by James Conner, who is second in the ACC with 104 rush attempts this season, the Panthers rank second in the conference with an average of 244.2 yards per game. Virginia’s senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who had a game-high 18 tackles against Duke, leads a formidable defense, but Pittsburgh’s run will be hard to bottle up.
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