The Virginia football team will not be sitting at home on their reclining chairs watching fellow ACC competition play in bowl games this winter break, as Virginia squeaked out a win against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 40-36 to make themselves bowl eligible since 2011. This has been an unbelievable turnaround for head coach Bronco Mendenhall in just under two years. The monkey is finally off the back but this shouldn’t diminish the focus of this team. They can still aim to reach larger bowl games and really put their program on the map to future recruits as they continue to rebuild their program back to respectability.
Virginia’s football team was beginning to feel the pressure of gaining bowl eligibility after taking two consecutive losses to teams that they had the best chance of defeating. During this week of practice, Mendenhall addresses the bowl eligibility and stressed to his team that they only way that they were going to make it was by going back to doing the things they did earlier in winning five of their first six.
This win was huge for the 10 point underdogs, after struggling their past two games against the Pittsburgh Panthers and Boston College Eagles. Virginia struggled to show consistency on offense, unable to establish an effective running game and find open receivers. They averaged under four yards per carry and have yet to gain a rushing touchdown since the 42-23 upset in potato land.
Against the Yellow Jackets, Virginia fans could feel the aggression and urgency the team was playing with, as they gained 357 total yards and were stellar on pass defense. The ball-hawking defense was able to pick off Georgia Tech quarterback Taquon Marshall twice as well as contain the triple option offense that has been a staple for Georgia Tech for years under their head coach Paul Johnson. This week, Mendenhall described his passion for defending the triple-option, as he will unload his option “football vault” that goes all the way back to the 60’s.
Offensively, they played much better than they had the previous two games, despite the factor of rain throughout the game. Quarterback Kurt Benkert could be seen contending with his accuracy through the soggy afternoon, as he only completed 21 of 43 passes for 260 yards. However, his completions were clutch throughout the day, becoming key drive extenders and part of the game-winning drive. After Georgia Tech completed a nine-play 90-yard drive to put themselves ahead with 3:10 remaining, Benkert kept his offense motivated and prepared to do the unexpected. After a short kickoff and Virginia set up at the 36, Benkert immediately hit Olamide Zaccheaus for 19 yards on the first play. Benkert than ran for 5 yards, followed by three consecutive passes completed, one ending with a 27-yard pass to wide-receiver Andre Levrone for a touchdown with only a minute and twenty seconds remaining.
As we have seen in the past with this team, 80 seconds is plenty of time for an opponent to come back. We’ve been horrified by last-second losses to Louisville and Notre Dame in 2015 and 2016, but today, defensive coordinator Nick Howell made sure his defensive unit was mentally prepared. Defensive end Chris Peace came up with two vital plays, with a sack on the third play of the drive and broke up Marshall last throw of the game.
On how his team played Mendenhall was emotional and extremely proud of the program. “Really, really happy for my team and really proud of them. They fought hard and they played hard today from the very beginning to the end.”
Virginia hopes to continue their winning ways in their upcoming road matchup against the Louisville Cardinals on November 11th. Virginia knows they can compete after losing the last two matchups by a combined 14 points.