Throughout training camp, Bronco Mendenhall remained understated in his assessment of what his players could accomplish in his second season as Virginia’s football coach.
Mendenhall learned last year the humbling consequences of issuing outsized proclamations and then failing to deliver. He had hinted, for instance, that Virginia would be bowl eligible in his first season. The Cavaliers finished 2-10.
With Virginia heading into an open date this weekend, however, the possibilities have transformed dramatically thanks to consecutive convincing triumphs, including Friday night’s emphatic 42-23 dismantling of Boise State on its home field, where the Broncos had not dropped a regular season nonconference game since 2001.
The Cavaliers (3-1) had lost 20 of 21 road games before toppling the two-touchdown favorites.
“I just love my team, and I love the progress they’re making,” Mendenhall said. “It’s just about continuing to learn and grow, move our program forward. The historical part is irrelevant to me at this point. This team thinks they can win, whether it’s on the road or at home.”
Virginia is halfway to bowl eligibility — it has not been to a bowl game since 2011 — thanks to staying committed to Mendenhall’s message of quiet confidence, even on the heels of a 34-17 loss to visiting Indiana on Sept. 9.
The Cavaliers have also trumpeted the benefits of having had time to absorb Mendenhall’s system with a full complement of healthy players. Most notably, quarterback Kurt Benkert has recovered completely from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee two years ago that limited his mobility last season, his first at Virginia after transferring from East Carolina.
Benkert has completed 115 of 174 passes (66.1 percent) for 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns with one interception. Based on his current averages, Benkert is on pace to become the first player in Virginia history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season.
The rushing game, meanwhile, has more than doubled its output from the first two games (147 total against William & Mary and Indiana) to the past two (338).
“We see what people say, and it’s expected after what kind of season we had last year,” said Benkert, a senior who completed 19 of 29 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns against Boise State, one week after setting a program record with 455 passing yards in a 38-18 victory over Connecticut. “But we know what we’re capable of and how much better we are. Now people have to take us seriously. We’re building momentum now, and we’re excited to see how it plays out.”
Benkert is one of only two starting quarterbacks from last year in the ACC’s Coastal Division who returned for this season. (The other is Duke’s Daniel Jones.) The Cavaliers’ next game, also their ACC opener, is against the Blue Devils (4-0, 1-0) on Oct. 7 at Scott Stadium.
There have been significant improvements defensively, too, underscored by Virginia shutting out the Broncos in the second half until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers allowed just 30 rushing yards overall and held Boise State to 4 for 16 on third-down conversion attempts.
Virginia is ranked 39th in total defense among the 129 schools in major college football after finishing 79th last season. Mendenhall became recognized for assembling consistently rigid defenses during 11 seasons at Brigham Young behind a base 3-4 alignment.
He began to simplify the defensive playbook over the second half of last season and continued to do so in spring practice and preseason camp.
Those modifications have allowed players to communicate more clearly and focus on swarming to the football.
Also of great help is being able to lean on eight defensive starters back from last season, including potential all-American selections Quin Blanding, a safety, and Micah Kiser, an inside linebacker.
Over the past two games, Virginia has produced six sacks and forced three turnovers by deploying what Blanding has referred to as Mendenhall’s “masterpiece” defense.
“That’s what we’ve been preaching,” said Blanding, who was voted first-team all-ACC the past two seasons. “This is what our new standard is. Yeah, we’ve got a bye this week, but that doesn’t mean anything. We’re still going to continue to work, and we’re going to continue to keep playing hard. That’s just our new standard.”