Through three losses, crushing though they were, Virginia football Coach Bronco Mendenhall remained adamant that the spirits of the players had not dampened.
It was “amazing,” Mendenhall said, how their confidence was growing and their optimism was steady even as he admitted to struggling through the “uncharted territory” of losing three in a row.
Effort was there. Execution was not, Mendenhall said. “A tangible result would be nice,” he said.
“Nice” turned out to be an understatement. After Virginia earned its first win of the season and of Mendenhall’s tenure Saturday, a 49-35 roller coaster against Central Michigan, the scene in the locker room was euphoric.
Having taken a step forward with the victory, which was also the 100th of Mendenhall’s career, Virginia isn’t keen on regressing this weekend as it opens conference play against Duke. The Cavaliers travel to Durham, N.C., in search of their first road win since 2012 with the same belief they have had all year but with a newfound resolve and, more importantly, a taste of what it’s like to win.
Mendenhall “got in the middle. We just all cheered,” senior tackle Eric Smith said of Saturday’s celebration. “He just kind of covered his face. . . . It wasn’t a boo-hoo tearing, but he was just covering his eyes, huffing and puffing. It was an amazing scene with a guy who doesn’t really show any emotion . . . to see someone like that, he just broke down.
“That kind of felt like a breakthrough within himself, away from the field, so it was amazing for us. If anything, the volume just went up with the cheers. Everybody’s just bumping each other. We’re throwing Gatorade around. That was a victory outside of a victory. That’s how we took that one.”
Mendenhall was out of breath after a long practice this week when he told reporters the win was a nice morale booster for the team, proof that its hard work in implementing a total culture change was paying off.
Last week’s win required 21 straight points in the fourth quarter after Virginia gave up a 28-0 lead. Quarterback Kurt Benkert threw for a program-record 421 passing yards as well as five touchdowns, including the team’s longest touchdown reception in 11 years — an 82-yarder to wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.
On the practice field this week, Mendenhall said the Cavaliers are more resolute and more focused for longer periods of time than before.
“I think possibly the reason that resolve is showing is because the game called for that, where we got up and then Central Michigan fought back, and then we had to kind of dig even deeper and to break through in that particular game, to have a victory,” Mendenhall said.
“The way I’ve assessed it is they got a tangible result from showing resiliency and resolve, so it’s becoming more who they are on a daily basis.”
Mendenhall is also quick to point out his team’s resilience in the face of injury.
Benkert has missed no practice or playing time despite suffering a painful shoulder injury in the Sept. 17 loss at Connecticut.
The Cavaliers’ cornerbacks group is particularly thin after losing senior Tim Harris, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Two other young cornerbacks, Darious Latimore and Myles Robinson, will miss Saturday’s game at Duke (2-2, 0-1) with lower-extremity injuries, and sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill is listed as probable.
Three other Cavaliers — junior linebacker Malcolm Cook (unspecified medical condition) senior guard Sean Karl (back) and freshman defensive end Christian Brooks (shoulder) are also out for the year.
To the Cavaliers, a quarterback in pain and an ailing pass defense are just recent additions to a sizable list of odds to overcome. For now, what continues to drive Virginia is the promise of another breakthrough: this time, snapping a 17-game losing streak on the road.
“Everybody was excited that we got the first one,” Smith said, “and I think everybody’s just excited to see or anxious to see what we’re going to do from here on out. We’ve had some sort of breakthrough but not the major breakthrough we desire. Everybody’s still hungry.”