New energy surrounding Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia team ahead of rivalry game

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall, left, and Steven Wright (90) gesture as they wait for officials to review a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Zack Wajsgras)

Not long after Bronco Mendenhall was named Virginia's football coach two years ago, he began to hear about the significance of the rivalry with Virginia Tech. Pursuing conference championships and bowl games was fine, but boosters, alumni and the student body were placing a premium on ending the longest losing streak in the history of the contentious in-state series.

The Cavaliers' drought stands at 13 straight games following last year's 52-10 drubbing in Blacksburg, the most lopsided result in the rivalry since 1983. The grumbling continues this week, with the teams set to meet at 8 p.m. Friday in Charlottesville in the final regular season game for both schools.

"Man, there were some crazy comments," Mendenhall said when reflecting on the initial calls for him to beat the Hokies. "I'm not even sure how many are appropriate to tell you. One of the first, kind of the first sentiment was, 'We don't care if you win any other game other than that game,' which has to be an exaggeration. But maybe not."

The Cavaliers enter the 99th installment of the Commonwealth clash brimming with optimism that was absent in recent years. Despite having lost four of its past five games, Virginia (6-5, 3-4 ACC) is bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 and can secure its second winning record since 2007 with a victory over the Hokies, who are 25th in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Virginia is coming off a 44-28 loss at No. 3 Miami after having twice led by two touchdowns at Hard Rock Stadium. Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert completed 28 of 37 attempts for 384 yards and four touchdowns against the Hurricanes and needs 101 yards to eclipse Matt Schaub's single-season program record of 2,976 passing yards set in 2002. The graduate transfer has thrown for at least three touchdowns in 10 of 21 career starts, including six times this season, but he managed only 122 yards on 9-for-26 passing in last year's loss to Virginia Tech.

In that game, Hokies linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka recorded a 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown that gave Virginia Tech a 45-3 lead midway through the third quarter.

"I think it's a different Virginia team, but this game is all about pride," said Motuapuaka, a redshirt senior. "Just pride of Virginia Tech, pride of that streak and just holding down. We're playing for more than just ourselves and the streak. We're playing for the past players that have come through and who started the streak. It's a lot on the line, but we're up for the challenge."

In addition to keeping the Commonwealth Cup, at stake for the Hokies (8-3, 4-3) is ensuring consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time since 2010-11 and second place in the ACC Coastal Division. The Hurricanes have clinched the division title and a berth in the ACC championship game against No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 2 in Charlotte.

The Hokies were in the mix for consecutive Coastal crowns until losing to Miami and Georgia Tech consecutively. Virginia Tech entered the Nov. 4 game against the Hurricanes ranked 13th but lost, 28-10, managing 299 yards of offense and committing five turnovers, including three interceptions by redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson.

A 20-14 win against Pittsburgh on Saturday averted Coach Justin Fuente's first three-game slide since taking over last season.

"A much-improved, completely different football team than we played a year ago," Fuente said of Virginia. "You can see that across the board in how they play, the belief in what they're doing. They're scoring points and throwing the ball down the field. They've got skill players that can really run and make big plays. Their quarterback is playing at a high level."

So too had Virginia's defense, until the past month. The Cavaliers have surrendered 39 points per game over that time, a precipitous decline by a unit that held back-to-back opponents to fewer than 260 yards of offense in early October.

Still, Virginia is ranked 34th in total defense thanks in large part to linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding. Both players, along with their senior teammates, will be recognized in a pregame ceremony at Scott Stadium.

Kiser, who brushed off the losing streak by pointing out that he hasn't been at Virginia for 13 years, leads the ACC in tackles per game (10.5), and Blanding is third (9.5).

"I have a better understanding for almost everything about our program than I did a year ago, and I can't say I have a perfect understanding of this game and the rivalry," Mendenhall said. "But it's very important to me and our team, and I understand the implications of that now. There's always something to play for, and it's really been fun with this team to have so many meaningful games this month."