CHARLOTTE, N.C. –– The University of Virginia’s offensive line coach stood near midfield at Bank of America Stadium and took in his surroundings Friday afternoon, including the huge V-Sabre on the videoboard.
“Love this place,” Garett Tujague said.
UVA’s head coach had a similar reaction when he stepped out of the tunnel and onto the field about an hour earlier.
“I felt good,” Bronco Mendenhall said, “because it was associated with our win over South Carolina, and that’s a positive thing.”
In last year’s Belk Bowl, the Cavaliers capped their third season under Mendenhall with a 28-0 win over South Carolina. Now comes a date with another team from the Palmetto State, this one much more formidable than the Gamecocks.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Coastal Division winner Virginia (9-3) meets Atlantic Division champion Clemson (12-0) for the ACC title at Bank of America Stadium. ABC will televise the game.
The third-ranked Tigers, seeking their fifth consecutive ACC crown, have won 27 straight games and two of the past three national championships. The No. 22 Wahoos haven’t faced Clemson since 2013, so they’re unfamiliar with their opponent, “but the setting is at least one less unknown before we play the game,” Mendenhall said, “and that’s a good starting point.”
Mendenhall and his Clemson counterpart, Dabo Swinney, spoke during a press conference at the stadium Friday afternoon.
“It’s amazing to be here and representing at the University of Virginia,” said Mendenhall, who preceded Swinney. “It’s been four years of diligent, hard, methodical, intentional and progressional work to develop a quality football program. It’s gratifying to see sequential changes, a pattern of unbroken growth, and smiles on a daily basis at our football facility.
“I’m really proud to be associated with this team, this group of young people and what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve overcome to reach this stage. While this stage is not the end by any means, it certainly is a different chapter, a different opportunity, and a different setting for us to continue to grow, learn and expand our program.”
As is generally the case when they take the field, the Tigers are favored to win this matchup. But the Hoos have embraced the challenge in front of them.
“It’s exciting,” senior quarterback Bryce Perkins said Tuesday at the McCue Center. “We set the goals at the beginning of the season, and now we’re here, and everything so far that we accomplished is right on cue with what we said at the beginning.
“We’re not just happy to be here. We’re going out there to win a football game. We know the challenge at stake, and I think these guys know how they have to prepare and these practices, how they have to be, as far as mentally and physically, for us to have our best chance to go out there and shock the world.”
Junior linebacker Zane Zandier echoed Perkins’ comments.
“We’re not going just to go and enjoy the sightseeing and everything like that,” Zandier said. “We’re going to go and we’re going to try to win.”
The All-ACC first team, announced early this week, includes only Cavalier: senior Joe Reed, who was named at two positions (all-purpose and return specialist). Clemson placed eight players on the first team, including tailback Travis Etienne, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
Lawrence is a sophomore. Etienne and Simmons, who are juniors, were also named the ACC’s top offensive and defensive players, respectively.
In All-ACC balloting, Lawrence received 150 votes, to 102 for Perkins, a second-team selection. But it’s hard to envision a player in FBS who’s more valuable to his team than Perkins.
In his two seasons at UVA, to which he transferred from an Arizona junior college in January 2018, Perkins has accelerated the program’s return to relevance.
“We’re not here without Bryce Perkins in this time frame,” Mendenhall said Friday.
Kurt Benkert, a pro-style quarterback, led the Cavaliers’ offense in 2016 and ’17. With Benkert leaving, Virginia’s coaches “knew we had to have a quarterback that was dynamic, that could run and throw to make up for a talent deficit elsewhere,” Mendenhall said.
“If we had been conventional, every other player would have to perform at a conventional level in comparison to components. We needed at least one player that was capable of helping others raise their play on what the demands of their job was.”
That player was Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State. With two games left in his college career, he ranks third all-time at UVA with 7,239 yards of total offense. Only Shawn Moore (7,897 yards, 1987-90) and Matt Schaub (7,650 yards, 2000-03) have accounted for more at Virginia.
Asked Friday about Perkins, Swinney said he’s reluctant to compare other quarterbacks to former Louisville great Lamar Jackson, then did so anyway.
Jackson, now a star with the Baltimore Ravens, “throws the ball a little bit better [than Perkins],” Swinney said, “but they both create, and this guy can run the football. He can throw the ball too.”
Perkins has the same will to win “that you saw with Lamar,” Swinney said, “his creativity, what he means to his team, how inspirational he is to the team, his toughness when he runs. He’s just a handful.”
The Wahoos came into the season with an outstanding Bryce on each side of the ball. On Oct. 11, however, senior cornerback Bryce Hall suffered a season-ending injury against ACC rival Miami, and opponents have much more success passing the ball against Virginia since then.
Without Hall, one of the team captains, along with Perkins and senior linebacker Jordan Mack, the Cavaliers “have had to adapt, overcome and adjust schematically and leadership wise to account for him, and we won’t ever be able to compensate fully for him,” Mendenhall said.
“However, he’s become unofficially titled our assistant secondary coach. He’s responsible for developing every new player that’s out there. Our entire backup group of five defensive backs are all first-years [whom] he’s basically in charge of.”
Hall, an All-American in 2018, delivers the final speech to the team before every game, Mendenhall said. “He certainly can do that better than I, and it is a way as a team captain, someone that cares so much about the program, that he can contribute, and he does a masterful job with that. Our success is still tied to him.”
At the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, UVA’s defense will try to slow an opponent that’s averaging 45.2 points per game. Etienne has rushed for 16 touchdowns, Lawrence has thrown 30 touchdown passes, and wide receiver Tee Higgins has 10 touchdown catches, and they’re only three of the Tigers’ many weapons.
“They do a lot of similar stuff that we’ve seen all year,” Zandier said, “it’s just they have incredible athletes at every position and they do it at a really high level.”
The Tigers are no less imposing on defense. They have not allowed more than 294 yards in a game this season. Opponents are averaging 10.1 points against Clemson.
“Our execution, our plays have to be on point,” Perkins said. “We can’t afford to have mental errors and expect to overcome those late in the game. So from quarter one to quarter four, we’ve got to ramp it up.”
Swinney raves about his linebackers and defensive backs, and Perkins can see why.
“They’re just as big as they are fast,” Perkins said. “They cover ground fast and [have outstanding] recovery speed. Things may seem open, but guys are flying across the field and making plays on the ball. We’ve got to be sharp about, and I’ve got to be sharp about, ball placement and timing and everything like that. Minimize the recovery speed and the opportunity for them to make a play.”
The Hoos rallied to defeat Virginia Tech 39-30 at Scott Stadium last Friday, ending their 15-game losing streak in the series and clinching the program’s first Coastal Division title. UVA became the last of the Coastal’s seven teams to advance to the ACC championship game.
“We have not been on this stage, nor are we pretending that we have,” Mendenhall said. “[The Tigers] have. It’s new for us. It’s not new to them, and the process of discovery is exciting, invigorating and challenging. Being a pioneer, carving or blazing a trail that hasn’t been blazed or carved for a while, is exciting and challenging.”
His players, Mendenhall said Friday, are “so full of optimism and hope and excitement. I’m not getting in the way of that. This is a moment they have earned. I don’t intend to taper it.”
Perkins said: “Any time you get to play a great team like [Clemson], I think it brings the best out of everybody, the emotions and the total effort that it takes to go out there and beat a team like that. That’s what college football’s about, going into games like this. I have never been a part of a team that has an opportunity to go out there and play such a high-caliber team. So all the years watching them in the ACC championship and watching the national championship, now we’re here and now it’s our time to be a part of this.”
Much has changed since UVA finished 2-10 in its first season under Mendenhall. The Cavaliers improved to 6-7 in 2017, when they advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years, and to 8-5 in 2018, when they ended the season with a victory for the first time in 13 years. Now they have an opportunity to post only the second 10-win season in program history.
“He came in with a very clear plan,” Swinney said of Mendenhall. “He wasn’t afraid to lose, he wasn’t afraid to fail. He knew what he wanted to do. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He was able to articulate that. Then build it, create that mindset, that belief. Get the right people in place. Put the work in.
“He’s done it step by step … I have an unbelievable appreciation for what he’s done and how hard it is to do that.”