The final push begins Saturday against Georgia Tech (2-6, 1-4), which is last in the division in its first year under coach Geoff Collins.
“Closing out the Coastal race is another challenge for this program,” Mendenhall said this week.
The Yellow Jackets’ record might have the Cavaliers feeling especially confident, but right guard Chris Glaser has been around long enough to remember when overconfidence was an issue. He believes the veterans will address it this week by “just remembering history and how that felt especially,” he said.
Junior defensive and Mandy Alonso had another cautionary reminder on overconfidence: “They beat Miami at Miami, where we didn’t,” he said.
The Cavaliers also will be bolstered by last week’s performance from quarterback Bryce Perkins, perhaps his best of the season. He threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 112 yards and two more scores in a 38-31 victory at North Carolina that put its fate in Virginia’s hands.
“The quarterback (Bryce Perkins) is really, really special,” Collins said this week. “They play at a high level. He obviously knows what he’s doing with the football and within the scheme. So, it is a challenge on both sides.”
Georgia Tech is transitioning from a triple-option team to a more conventional offense, mostly with a roster that previous coach Paul Johnson recruited for his unique style before retiring after last season. They rank last in the conference, averaging 299.5 yards and 17.1 points.
Collins has said in trying to overhaul the program that some things matter more than others.
“All we can do is worry about us and focus on us,” He said. “And just every single day fight and scratch and claw to get better to give ourselves a chance to play really, really well as a Georgia Tech football team going on the road.”
Some other things to watch when Georgia Tech visits Virginia:
A sign of progress for Virginia is that becoming bowl eligible last week was not a cause for celebration. That was not the case in Mendenhall’s second year, when the Cavaliers ended a long bowl drought, or even in their third, when they finished 8-5 with a bowl win against South Carolina.
Virginia’s QB went into last week’s game with 14 touchdowns and 11 turnovers and emerged with 19 (12 passing, 7 running). Virginia is tough to beat when it gets dynamic play from Perkins and a solid performance from its defense, but the Yellow Jackets won’t make it easy. They are second in the ACC in pass defense, allowing just 187.9 passing yards per game.
The Yellow Jackets have blocked three kicks (two punts, one field goal) in their last three games. In games that look lopsided on paper, a big play on special teams can quickly change the narrative.
Mendenhall refers to what most describe as the red zone (inside the opponent’s 20) as the blue zone. While Virginia seemed to solve its problems in the “blue zone” against UNC, Georgia Tech leads the ACC and ranks 10th nationally in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score on just 70.3% of their trips.
Over the past two games, the Yellow Jackets have allowed points on just four of its opponents’ nine trips into the red zone.
Crowds at Virginia have been growing increasingly engaged, and larger, and Mendenhall and his players have noticed. But home games have typically started much later than the 12:30 p.m. kickoff for this game, so they hope the division title stakes will brings students and fans out early.
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