CHARLOTTESVILLE—Anyone who claims to know how the 2020 college football season will play out is either naive or an outright liar. Just ask the good folks at LSU or Oklahoma about their playoff chances after one week, or the Big Ten and Pac–12 about even posting a schedule.
Bronco Mendenhall admitted he wasn’t sure what to expect from his Virginia team when it finally opened their campaign Saturday afternoon against Duke—a game he called “surreal” due to state-mandated sparse attendance. After several literal delay of game postponements (none of their own making), the Cavaliers finally took the field—and fumbled the opening kickoff.
It wasn’t nearly as easy as the 38–20 final score might indicate, but the Cavaliers look like they’ll give themselves a chance to be competitive.
“There’s lots to learn, plenty of things to improve on,” Mendenhall said. “But they proved they’re resilient. They played through their mistakes, but ultimately, I’m encouraged.”
Every coach stresses fundamentals, but the Cavaliers started with the most basic of achievements in this strangest of all seasons: they haven’t reported a single positive COVID-19 test since players returned to Grounds in early July. While other programs have had to postpone games, they entered their opener at full strength.
(To be fair, Virginia Tech seemed to do just fine in its opener despite the absence of 23 players and two coaches, so quantity isn’t everything. Still, a team like the Cavaliers that’s short on star power needs as many contributors as it can get.)
So when Virginia’s defense shrugged off Tavares Kelly’s fumbled kickoff to hold Duke to a field goal, and when the Cavaliers wore down the Blue Devils and outscored them 21–0 in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t exactly shocking to the home sideline.
“There were going to be some first-game jitters,” senior linebacker Zane Zandier said. “Mistakes are going to happen. But everybody stayed the course.”
Mendenhall thinks there’s a correlation between the discipline his team has shown in staying COVID-free and its resilience on the field Saturday.
“We have a saying in our program: ‘How you do one thing is how you do everything,’ “ Mendenhall said. “I promised them it would [carry over to the field]. I’m so glad it worked, because my credibility is at stake.”
Besides poise, the Cavaliers have a few other assets that could propel them to a better finish than the ninth-place media prediction.
There’s a veteran offensive line that came into Saturday’s contest with a combined 115 career starts (tied for third-most among any BCS school). That group opened holes for Virginia’s solid running back duo of Wayne (Taulapapa) and Shane (Simpson), who combined for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
There’s an experienced defense that registered seven turnovers and five sacks of three different Duke quarterbacks. That unit could be more vulnerable if senior safety Joey Blount’s lower-leg injury is serious, but the Cavaliers should be stingy against every opponent not named Clemson (next week’s challenge).
And Virginia may have an X factor in 6-foot-7 true freshman receiver Lavel Davis Jr., who did a credible impersonation of former All-American Herman Moore. In his college début, Davis caught four passes for 101 yards and two scores, including a gorgeous fade pattern for the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter. This came after a juggling 27-yard catch was overturned by review.
“He’s one of out best-kept secrets,” Mendenhall said, “but it’s hard to hide 6-feet-7. ... He has a very bright future as he learns to grow.”
Davis made Brennan Armstrong look a lot better as he succeeds the dazzling Bryce Perkins. The sophomore threw for 269 yards (No. 2 in school history for a first start) and two scores and also ran for 47 yards and a touchdown. But he also threw two interceptions, including an awful read that gave Duke the ball at the Virginia 9 in the third quarter.
“I’m just glad to get a win, no matter how ugly it was,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong is a fitting microcosm of his team. In fact, Mendenhall could have been talking about the Cavaliers as a whole as he assessed his quarterback.
“This is where we’re starting from,” he said. “ ... He showed resiliency, and that’s a really good starting point.”
Steve DeShazo: 374-5443
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