CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It has been a long time since Virginia won a football game on the road, but their 16th consecutive loss away from home left coach Bronco Mendenhall and his players feeling surprisingly upbeat.
The difference in the latest loss was the way his team carried itself on the field, and on the sideline.
“It’s a complete 180,” quarterback Kurt Benkert said, comparing the team’s demeanor in a 44-26 loss to the No. 22 Oregon Ducks to how the Cavaliers reacted after falling behind in their season-opening 37-20 loss to Richmond. “The Richmond game, everyone was sad on the sideline. We weren’t expecting to lose or any of that and once it started getting really bad, it was like there had been a funeral or something.”
The Cavaliers trailed Oregon 30-6 at halftime, but never hung their heads or disengaged from the game. On the sideline, they cheered every good play, and offered reassurance to teammates after the Ducks hit a big play. They hope that same resilience this week at Connecticut (1-1) will help them end a road losing streak that dates back to victory at North Carolina State on Nov. 3, 2012.
“There were players after that game that said in their entire time at UVA they’ve never felt like they’ve felt after that game,” Mendenhall said. “That means in terms of confidence, enthusiasm, optimism, and having fun.”
It’s the having fun part that seemed to have the greatest impact on the players.
“It’s been absent,” senior right tackle Eric Smith said. “Seeing something that’s being accomplished that’s never been done before, it’s almost like, ‘This is an amazing feeling.’ When guys are out there smiling, we’re behind a touchdown or two or three touchdowns and we’re actually smiling, knowing that we feel a change within ourselves that has never occurred before.
“So it was just a thrill to know that we’ve accomplished something and we know we’re capable of doing much more.”
Mendenhall repeatedly has said that the attitude change he and his staff are trying instill into a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 is the first piece in his rebuilding plan, and one that much of the rest of his program will need to build off of to produce the winning he has promised.
The team still has a mountain to climb, he said, but he saw “much improvement” against Oregon.
“Being completely present in each moment and flying around as hard as you can with guys that you care about and they’re cheering you from the side, eventually that will become a formidable thing when the execution and consistency and position mastery all then is woven within that,” he said Monday. “And they see that, and they see it’s sequential. So I think we’re gaining momentum, at least from a belief standpoint.”
Sophomore linebacker Chris Peace said the enthusiasm was infectious, and started in practice.
“One of the major things I noticed that was a big difference was the effort we played with. Since I’ve been here, rarely have I ever seen us finish the game as hard as we did from beginning of the game all the way to the end,” he said. “The second thing was the sideline. That was the most enthusiastic I’ve seen our sideline since I’ve been here. It started off with practice. … The sideline was a big factor this week. It kept everybody energized.”
Online: AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org