Boise, Idaho • Virginia huddled before every play. Bronco Mendenhall cursed just this once.
The Cavaliers’ offensive tempo illustrates the patience and planning required in the former BYU coach’s rebuilding project. His brief halftime speech after the defense he personally coaches allowed a last-minute touchdown drive? That was much more impulsive as Mendenhall enforced standards that have resulted in the Wahoos’ posting more wins (three) in September than they recorded in his entire first season in Charlottesville.
Anyone expecting to see an East Coast version of offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s “go fast, go hard” approach from the staff’s Provo era is struck by UVA shortening the game as part of a slow, steady growth strategy in a downtrodden program.
Mendenhall’s team accelerated the process Friday night. It produced the most impressive of Mendenhall’s five victories with Virginia in a 42-23 win over Boise State at Albertsons Stadium, where his BYU experience included losses of 7-6 and 55-30 in this decade.
The Bronco Effect? Virginia lost 56-14 to Boise State in 2015. The Cavaliers led 42-14 late in Friday’s game. Virginia enjoyed two 21-0 runs, although Boise State’s second touchdown evoked a memorable halftime scene, according to UVA linebacker Micah Kiser.
Mendenhall let his defensive players have it. “A couple F-bombs, so it was awesome, honestly,” Kiser said. “He hasn’t shown a lot of emotion.”
BYU AT UVA
Eight of Bronco Mendenhall’s nine Virginia assistantcoaches played or coached under him at BYU: Robert Anae (offensivecoordinator), Nick Howell (defensive coordinator/secondary), KellyPoppinga (special teams/outside linebackers), Mark Atuaia (runningbacks), Jason Beck (quarterbacks), Garett Tujague (offensive line),Shane Hunter (inside linebackers) and Vic So’oto (defensive line).
Being in Boise brought it out of him. Citing “all kinds of flashbacks” as he stood outside the visiting locker room, Mendenhall said, “It’s just surreal to [live] all the way across the country now and come back and play in this setting with a bunch of new guys. It’s meaningful and substantial, and it’s just fun to see players having fun.”
With the victory secured, Mendenhall gave Kiser an understated fist-bump of satisfaction on the sideline. Virginia’s victory hits home in Utah, where Boise State will visit BYU and Utah State in October. Mendenhall’s players also know what it means. “This is a brand-new Virginia football team,” said safety Quin Blanding. “People didn’t see that. People had us going last in the ACC, but they better change their minds now.”
Virginia needs only three conference wins for bowl eligibility, but that might be getting ahead of the story. The Cavaliers open ACC play Oct. 7 vs. Duke after finishing 1-7 in conference play last season. ESPN’s Football Power Index favors them in only one remaining game. The rebuilding of Virginia remains a tough job for Mendenhall, 51, who acknowledged his BYU program had gone stale, even as he won 99 games in 11 seasons.
So he moved to a school that’s the public equivalent of BYU — with high academic standards and tough competition in the ACC, compensated by his $3 million-plus salary in a Power Five program. With his BYU-oriented staff, he’s trying to make recruiting in-roads in unfamiliar territory and win in a challenging environment. Virginia has a new president and is searching for an athletic director after Craig Littlepage’s retirement this month.
The transition is “a great opportunity for UVA to reset and make really clear what their expectations are in all sports, but also really what kind of commitment we want to make to football,” Mendenhall said recently. “I’m anxious to see what those choices are.”
The approach to his own job includes some elements of Bronco being Bronco. He will award redshirt status only at the end of an athlete’s fourth season, if he has eligibility remaining. Players went through spring practice with no numbers on their jerseys, then the team conducted a draft of numbers, with the order of selection determined by the team’s “task unit leaders.”
Virginia has wins over William &Mary (28-10), UConn (38-18) and Boise State (43-32) and a loss to Indiana (34-17). ESPN’s Football Power Index now projects 5.5 wins for UVA. In ACC play, the Cavaliers will host Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and visit North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Mendenhall responded well to a moment of crisis in Charlottesville. After a major, racially oriented demonstration in the town, he stood before his team and read from the Bible about “blessing those who persecute you” (Matthew 5). The players then followed Kiser’s suggestion to pose for a photo with their arms linked in front of the rotunda on campus.
As Mendenhall said, “We can be an example and a rallying point.”
Mendenhall took over a BYU program in 2005 that had suffered three losing seasons, including two with him as defensive coordinator, under Gary Crowton. Mendenhall went 11-2 in his second year in a turnaround he remembers as both difficult and satisfying. Comparing his current task to the one in Provo, though, he said, “I would magnify that two or three times. It’s really hard work, but it’s absolutely rewarding, and it’s really nice to be wanted and needed for a chance to make a difference.”
That’s happening, judging by Virginia’s showing in Boise.
“I always tell people, this isn’t like a one-year turnaround with coach Mendenhall,” Kiser said. “It’s going to be a long process. [But] if you watched our team last year and watch us this year, it’s night and day, a whole different team. The culture’s there now, and we’re starting to execute a lot better.”
Anae’s offense looks a lot different than his BYU scheme. Instead of hurrying to run plays, the Cavaliers use varied personnel packages, sometimes substituting five players. His play-calling was diverse and aggressive against Boise State, resulting in 440 yards and six touchdowns – and an inevitable comparison to come, when the Broncos visit Provo for their next game, Oct. 6.
The Salt Lake Tribune is profiling the three Utah high school graduates among the 65 head coaches in Power Five College Football. Their career records:
Kyle Whittingham (Provo) • 108-50 in 13 seasons at Utah
Bronco Mendenhall (American Fork) • 104-54 in 13 seasons at BYU and Virginia
Gary Andersen (Cottonwood) • 56-59 in 10 seasons at Southern Utah, Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State.