Just after 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, by the time head coach Bronco Mendenhall finally reached the media room at Scott Stadium, the cheering from the locker room down the hall was still noticeably audible. The smile that occasionally crept across Mendenhall's face looked like part excitement, part relief.
After a 28-21 win over Duke, the Wahoos had moved to 4-1 for the first time in a decade. And everyone seems to still be processing that in their own way.
Fans who saw it live in person sounded more excited and raucous than 38,683 normally would. Observers in the press box are still unsure of what the 2017 story of this team will be. And across the sports media spectrum, people are taking notice of this "new standard" as the players are wont to call it.
"Our team played hard today," Mendenhall explained, "and they played with resiliency and determination and toughness and grit. And it was a challenging game but we knew it would be. And we knew there’d be ups and downs and we knew there’d be lead changes and we knew that their defense would be disruptive and cause some problems. Fortunately we matched the disruption, if not exceeded that defensively."
That disruption, with a defensive front that is good at stopping the run and hard to keep out of the backfield, is mostly why the Blue Devils came in at 4-1. Their lack of offensive consistency, particularly in the passing game, is why they arrived in Charlottesville 0-1 in ACC play.
UVa did all it could to stave off the former and keep pressure on the latter while its offense got itself back on track
The first half was a mixed bag. Defensively, the Hoos again made life miserable for Daniel Jones and picked him off twice, one of those being taking back for the first pick-6 of Quin Blanding's storied UVa career. The offense took a while to get going but a key 69-yard scoring drive just before halftime not only tied the score but gave Virginia momentum.
The defense came out in the second half and immediately got a stop, allowing the offense to then go 10 plays, 79 yards to take the lead for good. It might've gotten tight late (and much tighter than it needed to be) but it was still UVa's game to lose.
It's been a while since the Wahoos were in a position to be confident that they'd make the plays in the fourth quarter to lock up a Coastal Division victory. But that's precisely what they did.
"The most disappointing thing," Duke's David Cutcliffe said, "is that we got whooped so badly in the second half as a team. I know, as I said, the score did not dictate that, but on 3rd downs, they are 7-for-11 and we are 0-for."
"I was proud of our players," Mendenhall explained, "for the resiliency they showed and have shown and it’s fun to see them smile, it’s fun to see them happy, it’s fun to see them exhausted but also have the tangible outcome that they can look to justify and to continue the momentum they are generating. And it’s really fun to see.”
That resiliency was tested a bit when Doni Dowling, in the midst of a 17-yard reception that was about to put Virginia up two touchdowns with 7:08 left, summersaulted into the end zone. The 15-yard flag for unsportsmanlike conduct aided in Duke's ensuing return, though Shaun Wilson's 76-yard gain that set up a scoring drive in just three plays from the 12-yard line was largely the fault of UVa's coverage unit.
So, it took one more defensive stand and a big play by true freshman linebacker Charles Snowden, a 10-yard loss on a sack of Jones on 3rd and 6, to really seal it. Poetic that it was Snowden's first snap of the day as he came on in relief of a gassed Chris Peace, who had a sack earlier on the drive.
"We had quite a few players that I just don’t think they can play longer or harder," Mendenhall explained. "They were just reaching that threshold...We have two young pass rushers right now as first-years, [Elliot Brown] and [Snowden] are doing a nice job. And a capable and committed and assignment sound first-year that’s fresh and can go in in a situation like that, you don’t just put anyone out there.
"There was a lot at stake there," he added, "and he not only did what he was supposed to do but then actually made a play as well in that situation, it’s really cool.”
All in all, the game itself and the result UVa earned is a testament to the "new standard" that he says his players have "branded" this 2017 season. While Mendenhall does his best to frame this recent success as the early, early stages of a long process, players are embracing it as the new expectation.
"They've recognized it," he said. "They want that and they want that to be normal. So they're striving for it and investing in it. I'm glad to help them. But it has to be theirs and it is right now."
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