Behind Enemy Lines: Virginia Cavaliers

Zach Lentz

Bronco Mendenhall is in his fourth season as Virginia’s head football coach after being named the program’s 40th head coach on Dec. 4, 2015.

Mendenhall enters the 2019 season with a career record of 115-65, which includes a 99-43 mark in 11 seasons as the head coach at BYU. Between UVA and BYU, Mendenhall has led his teams to bowl games in 13-of-14 seasons as a head coach. That 92.9 percent rate ranks tied for No. 3 among active FBS head coaches.

After playing in the Military Bowl in 2017, Mendenhall led Virginia to back-to-back bowls in 2018 for the first time since 2004 and 2005 after the Cavaliers earned a Belk Bowl invite. Mendenhall’s Cavalier squad shutout South Carolina, 28-0, in the 2018 Belk Bowl to give UVA its first bowl victory since the 2005 Music City Bowl. UVA’s shutout performance was the first over an SEC team in a bowl game by a non-SEC team since the 1975 Gator Bowl.

Mendenhall is one of three active coaches that has inherited at least two programs in his career that were coming off a losing season and in year one, or year two, played in a bowl game. The others to do it are Nick Saban (Alabama, LSU, Michigan State) and Mark Dantonio (Michigan State/Cincinnati).

If his Cavaliers want to take the next step in building a championship program, they will have to get past the four-time defending champion Clemson—a game that many have likened to David versus Goliath.

"I think that's probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year," Mendenhall said. "I don't find us in any different situation. If you look at the program they have established over time, the job Coach Swinney has done, as well as their record, I think we'll just be the next team that will be lumped in the same category as everyone else. The difference simply is that we've battled, scrapped and clawed our way to win our side of the division in a program that hasn't known recent success and is hungry for more. The rest of it will be played out in the game."

Virginia on offense:

Robert Anae enters his fourth season at Virginia on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff and is the offensive coordinator and inside receivers coach.

Anae coordinated an offense that scored 370 points in 2018, the fourth-most points scored ever by a Cavalier football team. Under Anae's guidance, quarterback Bryce Perkins shattered UVA's single-season record for total offense (3,603), which ranked No. 3 in the ACC and No. 21 in the nation. Perkins and 2018 Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) were the only two players in the nation with 2,600+ passing yards and 900+ rushing yards. 

"I think first of all the leadership from the (defensive coordinator Brent Venables) is strong,"  I think the scheme, strategy, initiatives that are launched each week, which are never quite the same, I think are really well thought out. The talent base at every position has been crafted at a really strong level that matches the style, system and schematics of the design. You have a really nice blend of leadership with scheme and personnel and experience. That then forms culture and tradition. 

"This group I think is the next version and probably the strongest version that I've seen. I have studied Clemson before defensively and have been impressed with not only the scheme but the innovation and the ideas they have."

Virginia of defense:

Nick Howell is in his fourth season at Virginia on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff and is the defensive coordinator/secondary coach.

Howell's defense shined in 2018, finishing No. 12 in the nation in team passing efficiency defense (107.62), No. 16 in passing yards allowed (183.0), No. 20 in the nation in team defense (330.5) and No. 20 in scoring defense (20.1). UVA's 28-0 drubbing of South Carolina in the 2018 Belk Bowl was the first time an SEC team was shutout in a bowl by a non-SEC team since the 1975 Gator Bowl. 

However, Howell's defense will be challenged in a different way this week, as they face a red-hot Trevor Lawrence and a Tiger offense that is playing as good as any team in college football history.

"A significant challenge, not only at quarterback, but running back and wide receiver," Mendenhall said. "When you look at this particular opponent, and it doesn't matter which side you're looking at, offense or defense, the talent is certainly the first thing that jumps out. The scheme and strategy and the coaching is certainly strong also from the Clemson offense specifically. Basically everyone that touches the ball is very skilled, very capable. Clemson's ranking and their success is not accidental. It's coming because of the collective the things I just mentioned. Yeah, significant test for us."