Here’s our Q&A for this week with Chris Horne of The Sabre:
ASOR: After a rough first season, Bronco Mendenhall has guided the Cavaliers to its 2nd consecutive 6 win season. Despite the tough loss last Friday to Pitt, has the fan base bought in to Coach Mendenhall as the guy to bring the program back to national prominence?
Chris Horne: I’m sure there are some skeptics still out there just because Virginia football has been down for so long. This was never going to be a one-year fix. UVA endured some real struggles toward the end of the Al Groh era and through the Mike London era. Subpar football, including a double-digit losing streak to Virginia Tech, and some questionable decisions/timing on the administration (Virginia fans will know about the reseating policy efforts during the Groh era) hit the fanbase hard. That being said, Mendenhall has hit all the right buttons and the program is showing progress, and in Year 3 the energy from the fanbase – from what we are seeing on our boards and just from the enthusiasm of the Scott Stadium crowd – is real and increasing. I think many have either bought into Mendenhall or are at least liking what they have seen so far.
ASOR: Attendance has been declining for the better part of the last decade in Charlottesville. Has it begun trending in a positive direction with the recent success, and what type of crowd should we expect for this weekend’s home finale?
CH: Here are the home attendance numbers this season …
40524 – Richmond
34446 – Louisville
42393 – Miami
43128 – UNC
36256 – Pitt
Virginia has had some bad luck the past two home games. Forecasters predicted bad weather versus UNC, which also had an early start time, and Pitt combined bad weather with being a Friday night contest. UNC could have been over 45,000 if it were not for the weather. Same for Pitt. Attendance is ticking up and I think – assuming the weather cooperates – Scott Stadium could have at least 45,000 strong on Saturday. It’s not just the attendance, though. Virginia fans are much more into the games from an excitement level, something Coach Mendenhall pointed out during his Monday press conference this week.
ASOR: Bryce Perkins has captured everyone’s attention this year with his play, in addition to the mobile quarterback, who are some other names we should watch out for on Saturday?
CH: Senior Olamide Zaccheaus became UVA’s all-time receptions leader in the UNC game. After only getting five touches versus Pitt, look for him to have a big game in his last game in Scott Stadium. Zaccheaus has the speed to break a touchdown any time he touches the ball. Senior running back Jordan Ellis has been a leader on and off the field for the Hoos the past two seasons. He is in the midst of his best year as a Cavalier. He’s also an important player for Virginia to get production from. His in-between-the-tackle running opens things up for Perkins and Virginia’s perimeter players. Like Zaccheaus, Ellis, a strong back who runs with tremendous will and determination, will be playing in his final home game. Junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois is a big target and one of Perkins’ most trusted players in the pass game. A key for Virginia every week is finding another player to step up along with Perkins, Ellis, Zaccheaus and Dubois. Joe Reed, Evan Butts and Tavares Kelly are players who have potential but haven’t been consistent in terms of production. Wide receiver Terrell Jana stepped up with a 71-yard, 1-TD performance last week.
ASOR: Several key defensive players left the Pitt game early last week, what is their status, and if they’re unable to go, how much of an impact will that have on the Virginia defense.
CH: Four players who play big minutes on defense — defensive lineman Mandy Alonso and safeties Juan Thornhill, Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson — were banged up against Pitt. The first three left the game and did not return. Alonso is out for the Liberty game, leaving an already thin defensive line even more thin. The sophomore had become one of UVA’s best defenders, performing well in pass rush and against the run.
At safety, Nelson should play this week, but he is clearly not 100%. Mendenhall is hopeful on Thornhill and Blount, but neither has been ruled in or out as of Monday. Both players play key roles against the pass and the run, so if one or both can’t go that certainly hurts and may make Mendenhall have to get creative in terms of personnel (which he has shown an ability to do well). Based on the depth chart released on Monday I’d say Thornhill will play but Blount may not. With these injuries, UVA also may have to turn to inexperienced and unproven players, leaving the safety position vulnerable.
ASOR: Since Liberty made the move to FBS, Virginia and the Flames have agreed to 6 games, including this year’s. What is the general sentiment among the fan base with this series, particularly being scheduled to make two trips to Lynchburg?
CH: The fans seem on board with this series, and why not? Logistically it’s a great fit for both programs and fanbases. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the teams sign on to future games well. It’s one of those matchups that just feels like a good fit.
Be sure to follow Chris and The Sabre, as well as check in on their very popular message boards to help get you ready for this weekend’s game!