The Virginia Cavaliers ended the 2018 football season on a high note as the Hoos demonstrably beat the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Belk Bowl, 28-0. It’s the first bowl win for the Cavaliers since a Music City Bowl win in 2005, and Virginia finished with eight wins for the first time since 2011.
South Carolina was favored by Vegas and S&P+ heading into the game, and their players were confident. “You’re supposed to beat up on smaller opponents,” SC tight end Kiel Pollard told Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week after one of the Gamecocks’ practices. “I feel like we’re the bigger opponent.”
There are a lot of things to take away from Virginia’s win in the Belk Bowl, both in reflecting on the past and looking towards the future for the Hoos.
Things are most certainly trending in the right direction
There’s a lot of things you can point to to support this claim, but nothing shows it more than Virginia’s record each season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. From 2-10 to 6-7 with a bowl game loss to 8-5 with a bowl game win, there is no denying that things are improving in Charlottesville.
“After being close a number of times, we’ve taken that feedback and learned and grown and applied and it worked for today,” Mendenhall said in the postgame press conference. “In this setting, with this team versus that team. And a bowl victory is significant. In this one game setting, that is a giant step forward.”
After being picked last in the ACC Coastal this season, the Hoos could be a favorite heading into the 2019 season. That’s impressive.
The seniors left a legacy
You can’t ask much more from a group of players than what the fourth and fifth (and in Tim Harris’s case, sixth) years did in both this game and in their careers. The true fourth years committed to then-coach Mike London and had played just one season before Coach Mendenhall entered the picture and asked them to buy into his style. And buy in they did.
A limited sampling of impact from the Belk Bowl and their careers at Virginia:
Jordan Ellis rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown against the Gamecocks, giving him 1,026 on the season for his first 1,000+ yard rushing season in his career. He also rushed for a team-high 10 touchdowns on the season.
Olamide Zaccheaus broke his own record for receptions in a single season, hauling in 93 this year (he set the record last season with 85). Zaccheaus, the Belk Bowl MVP, had 100 yards receiving in the game, giving him 1,058 yards on the season and making him just the third Cavalier (Herman Moore and Billy McMullen being the other two) to hit the 1,000 receiving yards mark in a season.
Juan Thornhill and Chris Peace defined Virginia’s mantra of “New Standard” with the latter being the first to use the term. Thornhill picked off a pass against USC and Peace contributed to the sack of QB Jake Bentley as time expired in the first half that helped keep the Gamecocks off the scoreboard.
Tim Harris spent six years in Charlottesville, struggling with season-ending injuries in 2016 and 2017. He finished his final season with 36 total tackles and two interceptions, the second of which came in the Belk Bowl.
There’s reason to be excited about next season
While the first takeaway is that Virginia is going in the right direction long term, this one is more short term. The Hoos return dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins (2,680 yards passing, 25 passing TDs, nine INTs, 923 yards rushing, nine rushing TDs) and receivers Hasise Dubois (five TDs) and Joe Reed (seven TDs). Lineman Ryan Nelson, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, RJ Proctor, and Chris Glaser all come back on an offensive line that showed improvement throughout the year.
Defensively, Virginia brings back superstar corner Bryce Hall, who decided to stay for his final year despite being a first round projection in this year’s NFL Draft.
“I’ve got to finish what I’ve started. I’m coming back,” Hall said after the game. “It’s not necessarily for me personally. It’s more of I want to grow as a person and as a leader before I take that next step. I have to give back to this program what it’s given to me.”
Alongside Hall on the defense, the Hoos will have safety Joey Blount, linebackers Zane Zandier, Charles Snowden, and Robert Snyder, and guys like Jordan Redmond, Eli Hanback, and Mandy Alonso...just to name a few.
On top of the returning players and the momentum the Hoos gained with the bowl win, Coach Mendenhall brings in his best recruiting class yet. Jowon Briggs and Ben Smiley will fill a need immediately, running back Mike Hollins is an exciting prospect, and Ja’quay Hubbard adds depth to the offensive line. Add in a (potentially) favorable 2019 schedule, and it’s completely reasonable to get excited for next season.