Once there, he encountered a rousing party after Virginia’s emphatic end to an ignominious 15-game losing streak to its in-state rival that earned the Cavaliers their first division title and a berth in the ACC championship game against No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 7 in Charlotte.
“The magnitude, I don’t think I can grasp right now,” said Mendenhall, who for the first time did the honors of the ceremonial rock-breaking in the locker room at the behest of his players.
A long list of other Cavaliers (9-3, 6-2 ACC), who racked up 492 yards of total offense, would have been appropriate as well to execute the tradition Mendenhall installed upon his arrival four years ago.
Take, for instance, quarterback Bryce Perkins. The senior accounted for 475 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in a redemptive performance one year after his costly fumble late in the game contributed to a painful 34-31 overtime loss to Virginia Tech.
Or defensive standouts Eli Hanback, a fifth-year linebacker, and Mandy Alonso, a junior defensive end. Alonso’s strip sack of Hokies quarterback Hendon Hooker in the end zone led to Hanback falling on the loose ball for a touchdown with 1:01 play for the final margin.
Then there was place-kicker Brian Delaney, a Chantilly native and Westfield High School graduate whose 48-yard field goal 22 seconds earlier delivered Virginia the lead for good, 33-30.
“It’s like a burden just taken off us,” Alonso said. “It’s amazing for this program and for Coach Mendenhall to, like, come here and change the whole program from all those losses, and to be a part of it, it’s a grateful feeling. It’s awesome.”
Alonso and Hanback were part of a determined pass rush down the stretch that sacked Hooker three consecutive times on the Hokies’ penultimate series. The Cavaliers finished with six sacks and forced four turnovers, including intercepting Hooker twice in front of an announced crowd of 52,619.
The Cavaliers also pressed ahead undaunted despite trailing three times in the second half, the last such instance coming on a career-long 47-yard field goal from Virginia Tech place-kicker Brian Johnson (Gonzaga) for a 30-27 lead with 10:58 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Hokies (8-4, 5-3) amassed 483 total yards, including 311 passing from Hooker, in losing for just the second time in eight games and in the final regular season game for defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The longtime Hokies assistant announced in the summer he would be retiring at the end of season.
“Disappointed for our guys,” Foster said. “It was a hard-fought game on both sides. It was a great football game, I’m sure from the fans’ perspective. From a coach’s standpoint, it was not that much fun, especially at the end there. If we were on that other side, it would be a lot of fun.”
The fourth quarter began with the Cavaliers drawing even at 27 on tailback Wayne Taulapapa’s two-yard run with 13:30 to play. Perkins opened the series with completions of 37 and 30 yards, respectively, to wide receivers Terrell Jana and Hasise Dubois (137 yards on four receptions).
After failing to score a touchdown in the first half, Virginia Tech got three in the third quarter to take a 27-20 lead. The last of those touchdowns with 48 seconds to go covered 61 yards when Hookier threw over the middle to Tre Turner, who beat safety Nick Grant on the way to the end zone.
Less than two minutes earlier, Virginia had tied the score on Billy Kemp’s three-yard scoring reception — the first touchdown of the sophomore’s career — from Perkins, capping a seven-play, 79-yard possession lasting 2:28 that included Joe Reed’s 42-yard catch.
Runs of 34 yards from Hooker and one yard by tailback Deshawn McClease produced the Hokies’ first two touchdowns that erased a seven-point deficit at halftime.
The Cavaliers owned a 13-6 lead heading into the locker room, with the only points of the second quarter coming via Johnson’s 26-yard field goal with 2:06 to play.
Virginia did not advance beyond the Hokies’ 38 during the second quarter, its offense sputtering after Perkins dazzled in the early stages.
By the end of the opening series of the first quarter, Perkins had rushed for more yards (74) than the Hokies had permitted overall in each of their previous three games. During that span, only Wake Forest managed to run for more than 60 yards against Virginia Tech.
“He certainly has been the catalyst for their offensive success,” Fuente said of Perkins, who transferred to Virginia two years ago. “He is a very accomplished player. He is deserving of the praise he receives is what I should say.”
A 39-yard scoring run from Perkins provided Virginia with a 6-0 lead less than four minutes into the game after Delaney missed the point after attempt. The play in which Perkins burst through the left side and cut back to his right to reach the end zone untouched followed his third-down runs of 19 and 16 yards.
“It meant the world,” Perkins, who revealed he had multiple hospital visits this week with tonsillitis, said of the win. “You know last year, especially, It was the last play that supposedly ended up costing us the game, and I had to sit with that all year. It hurt, so this year I really wanted to go out there and be aggressive.
“I wanted to just give everything I have to this team and not let them down again.”