Virginia won’t be going to a bowl game again, the fifth consecutive season without a postseason appearance for the Cavaliers.
It’s a first in Bronco Mendenhall’s 12 years as a head coach, but the Cavaliers (2-7, 1-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) are not saying his first season at Virginia is a failure.
Graduating senior center Jackson Matteo, one of three captains, said the foundation Mendenhall is establishing supersedes everything, and a 27-20 loss at Wake Forest last weekend that ended the Cavaliers’ bowl hopes has done little to dampen their enthusiasm.
“There is so much more to play for than a bowl game,” the former walk-on said this week. “Everyone who is not a part of the University of Virginia football program does not understand that. … There is so much more at stake than really what meets the eye. This program, these coaches, they’re trying to build a legacy, a dynasty.”
That’s also true in Miami, which Virginia hosts on Saturday.
The once-mighty Hurricanes (5-4, 2-3) haven’t won a national championship since 2001, and haven’t even played for an ACC championship since their heralded move from the Big East to the league in 2004. The Hurricanes started this season 4-0 and rose to No. 10 in the Top 25 , but then lost four in a row under their first-year coach Mark Richt.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya, coming off one of his best games — a four-TD-passing, one-TD-rushing, 356-yard gem against Pittsburgh — isn’t ready to write off the rest of the season, and thinks the Hurricanes might be able to regain some lost steam.
“I think the mood’s great in terms of players,” Kaaya said.
The Hurricanes, at least, still have several chances to qualify for a bowl game.
Many Cavaliers thought they would, too, after Mendenhall arrived with a resume that showed 99 victories and 11 consecutive bowl appearances in 11 years at BYU. But despite their elimination from consideration, Matteo said the players’ buy-in remains powerful, and the seniors’ role in changing the culture remains steadfast.
“I think that a couple of the things that are going to change this program is the amount of people that have fully, wholeheartedly bought in completely to showing up every day, to building good habits, and to being selfless,” he said. “I think in the past, the type of guy that we had in our locker room generally speaking (were) kinda ‘me’ guys, and it’s really tough to be successful when you’ve got those guys.”
Matteo isn’t alone in his disappointment, or his confidence that change is happening.
“It’s just how you approach even the small things,” said senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson, the team’s No. 2 receiver with 40 catches. “How you approach practice. If you approach it being sluggish like, ‘I’m not really feeling this,’ then you’re not going to have a good practice nine times out of 10. So we’re all really focused on approaching everything with a positive attitude, and that translates to the field, which translates to game days.”
The Cavaliers finish the season at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech so this game will be the last at home for Virginia’s seniors, 17 of whom appear on the two-deep depth chart.
Senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins shared a conversation with linebacker and fellow tri-captain Micah Kiser that summed up their careers.
“We’re going out there every day and we’re just fighting as hard as we can. Talking to Micah after the game, he immediately said, ‘I can’t give no more.’
“When you give all you’ve got, there’s no frustration.”
AP sports writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed.
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