Just got off the phone with Dabo and UVA Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall. I'll have that posted shortly!
DABO: First of all, just like to congratulate Virginia and Coach Mendenhall on an awesome season. Just really an incredible journey that they've been on since coach got there. I mean, it's been fun to watch. You could see this coming as far as them building a championship program.
Just being around Bronco in meetings and things like that, I think he's an outstanding coach, unbelievable human being, has just done a wonderful job there at Virginia.
We're excited about it, about competing with them, representing the Atlantic in the ACC Championship Game up in Charlotte. It's always been a wonderful experience. Any time we've had a chance to go up to Charlotte, they do a great job there. We appreciate that.
Super proud of our team. This is a team that I think last year at the end of the year, going into spring, lots of questions on our team, not sure there were a lot of people that felt like we would be at this point. Maybe we could compete for our league, but not be a 12-0 team.
To be 12-0 for the fourth time in our school history, just the development that I've seen, the commitment, the leadership, the work ethic day in and day out by our staff and players has just been awesome to be a part of.
These guys love to work. They love the challenge of getting ready every single week. So for us, this is the next goal, to get to Charlotte and have an opportunity to compete and win the ACC. That's what our focus is on.
Really just proud of our team, excited about the opportunity up in Charlotte Saturday night, seeing if we can find a way to win it. We all know that we've got playoff opportunities and all that stuff out there.
But the way we've gotten 12-0 is just focusing on the task at hand week in and week out. That's exactly the way it will be this week. Just lock in and try to play our best four quarters of the season. That's what it's going to take against a really good Virginia team.
Q. In terms of the big picture, you're a guy who has built a program into national championship levels. A game like this for Virginia, is this a big moment in terms of building their team? Could a lopsided defeat for them in this game be a setback?
DABO: Absolutely it's a massive moment for what Bronco has done with the program, for them building their program. It's a huge moment. I mean, they just won the Coastal. They're playing in a championship game. There's a progression that you go through when you're really building something special. I think that's what they've been able to do to this point.
Regardless of what the score is, their focus is to try to go win the game. They're good enough to win the game. We got to play championship football. Simple as that. As I tell our guys, We're not entitled to win, we have to earn it every week, have great respect and humility for the process to get ready for every opponent. We do that. It won't be any different this week.
Heck, we played for our first championship my very first year in '09, then we got beat. We got back two years later in '11 and we won. Then we got our first bid to the Orange Bowl, gave up 70 points. Other people tried to let that overshadow what we had accomplished that year in winning 10 games, winning the ACC for the first time in 20 years. I refused to let that happen and so did our team.
We came back in '11 and beat LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. It's just all part of the journey. Regardless of who wins the game or what the score is or any of that stuff, this is a huge moment for both teams. You're in a championship game. You've competed on the field for our division. It's the culmination of an excellent conference season.
Q. K'Von Wallace for you, what has it been like to coach him, his impact and his growth?
DABO: He's been a joy to coach. It's one of the best things about being a coach, is seeing the transformation in a young person. Seeing him from where he was when he got here to who he is now, not just as a football player, but as a man, just how well equipped he is for life. He's a graduate here in a couple of weeks. I'm just super proud of him.
He's so prepared for his next opportunity in football, but more importantly to just go and dominate in life. I'm just thankful to have had an opportunity to have a front row seat to that growth over the last four years.
He's definitely a guy that's going to play on Sunday. Will be a great addition to somebody's team at the next level.
Q. How is Jackson doing today? And when you look at Bronco's team, especially defensively, even in the early years there at Virginia, they always seemed to play sound, fundamental football, especially on the defensive side. How refreshing is that to see a team that always seems to be well-coached like they are?
DABO: He has done an outstanding job. He did the same thing at BYU. He's a really good coach. You can just tell that he believes in the fundamentals of the game, and not beating yourself. When you see a team that has those characteristics, that's the sign of the type of coaching they have.
He's put a good staff together. They've hung in there. He took over a tough situation. In just a very short time, here they are in the ACC Championship Game. Coaching matters. I say that all the time. Players play, but you got to be able to put it all together. I think they've just done an awesome job of that, giving their guys the opportunity to win week in and week out, then just to grow. They add some new pieces each year. Again, it's been fun to watch that take place.
I didn't get to see Jackson today. He looked good last night. Expect him to be fine.
Q. You said several times this year this group is a little different, in a good way, from the past groups that have achieved special things. What have you observed? Why are they different? Is that at all surprising given the fact a lot of them haven't ever lost a college football game?
DABO: Well, I just think, just like last year, we have great leadership. I mean, this is a defense that's playing the most consistent football of any group we've had. They're giving up 10 points a game. They've just been so consistent.
Offensively this is the most prolific offense we've had, scoring 45 a game. I mean, we're rushing the ball for 250 something a game. The other big thing, this is the best turnover margin team I've had. We're plus 11 in the turnover margin. We're getting a lot of takeaways, we're doing a good job of taking care of the ball. I think we've had seven games in a row now we've won the margin, which is the first time since I've been a head coach to have that consistency.
I just think we're not giving up big plays. Last year we were about 70th in plays of 20 yards or more. This year we're third or fourth in the country, plays of 20 yards or more. We just don't give a lot of big plays up.
The flipside of it, we're explosive. We're playing very, very well up front. We're protecting our quarterback at the best level of any team I've coached. So it's just been fun.
I think the neat thing is not a lot of seniors, but the experience and leadership of those guys has been unbelievable. The youth and the energy that has been a part of this team has been fun to coach.
We're a young team. I think we played the most freshmen of anybody in the country. Our future is very bright. But it's been neat to see it come together, the chemistry, the buy-in, the selflessness of this group.
Hopefully they'll be able to finish like we want them to. Now you get into a new phase of the season here, new experience for them in the post-season. After 12 games, just a tremendous year by these guys.
Q. Regarding the defense, given all the talent that left your program following last season, went to the NFL, did you and your staff think these kind of statistical benchmarks, did you think this was possible?
DABO: Well, my answer would be yes. That's our expectation every single year. That's kind of part of the deal, is everybody focused on who left. They forget to focus on who is still there.
Yes, we had some great players leave, but we have great players here. That was my big thing coming into the season, was I felt like this was the best back seven that I had had since I've been a head coach.
We're young, but very talented up front. When you're very disciplined, detailed in the back seven, you cannot necessarily cover up some things up front, because we're not covering anything up, but we can take some pressure off of those guys. As opposed to when you're not experienced on the back seven, you can be really, really good up front, it puts a lot of pressure on those guys because if you got guys running wide open, you just don't have a lot of room for error.
I just think, yes, we lost some great players up front, but we had a great group in our back seven coming back. Again, good, young talent in that D-line that's developed nicely, really has been able to just go play, have not had to have a lot of pressure put on them when it comes to just having to feel like they got to make a play, this and that, because you're not great on the back end.
We certainly expected to be a good defense. That's just the standard that we have. We lose players every single year on offense and defense. We feel like we've recruited well and developed well. If you do that, you got a good chance to sustain some consistency.
Q. You mentioned the building of your program. How influential was Tajh Boyd as you put together the foundation of Clemson football?
DABO: Can't overstate it. I mean, he was my first quarterback that I signed. You're talking about a guy that could have gone anywhere really. He signed in my very first class in February of '09. We only signed 12 players that year.
I needed a quarterback. I needed somebody that could come in and help me build a foundation, somebody that could be a face of our offense. I was looking for a certain style of play, the qualities that Tajh possessed.
I mean, it was just huge. Tajh was unbelievable. He left here as the winningest quarterback in school history. He and Rodney Williams tied. He took us to our first ACC championship, our first 10-win season in 20-plus years. That was huge for him.
He took us to our first BCS bowl win, had the huge win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A. We beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl in '13. Tajh was just a massive, massive piece to the foundation of our program today. He kind of passed the torch to Deshaun Watson. Deshaun came in here, just unbelievable what he did. He also left here tied with Tajh and Rodney as the winningest quarterback in school history. Took us to the next step, that was to win a national championship. Trevor has come in and took us to our first 15-0 season, another national championship.
Certainly Tajh was a major, major cornerstone to the foundation of our program.
Q. This is the fifth different opponent for you in five years in the ACC Championship Game. Does that kind of help keep things fresh, that you're not playing the same guys every year in the same game?
DABO: Well, I just want to be in it. I don't care about who we play. If we played the same team every year, I don't care. I just want to make sure we can get there.
It is kind of wild that we're playing our fifth different opponent, which is kind of cool, too. You don't get to play all the others. It's been a while. I'm trying to think when we played Virginia last.
DABO: Is that when it was? Okay.
We're definitely excited about, again, representing the Atlantic regardless of who comes out of the Coastal. Just so happens this year it's Virginia, a really talented team that's playing with a lot of passion and belief. We got to be ready to go.
Q. Some of the numbers are a little bit staggering, 27 consecutive wins, you lead the nation in consecutive home wins, consecutive road victories, ACC victories. Do you wait till the end of the season to look at stuff like that? Was that maybe part of your comments last night about Clemson not getting the respect it deserves nationally? Nobody really pays attention to it?
DABO: Well, I mean, that's part of it I guess. I just answered a guy's question. I'm not even sure who asked the question. I just answered his question. He was asking was this game relevant or something like that. I'm like, Yeah, because if we would have lost... Especially with rhetoric that's been out there really all year, really all spring, to be honest with you. You go win a game, then it's like the opponent was tired, whatever, all that type of stuff.
You come into this season, it seems like every week I even had to answer a question. When the First Take show was here, a lot of people think you go undefeated, you shouldn't be in the thing. It's just ludicrous. That's kind of what's been out there all year, as opposed to focusing on who we are as a team.
I'm not going to let anybody diminish what's been accomplished by our program, first of all, because it's incredible. Again, even going back to ACC Media Days, I made the comment then: we used to couldn't win in the post season because we didn't play people, now we only win because we don't play people. It's just the same old storyline, people just flip it around to whatever their agenda they want to have.
My job is to speak the truth and stand up for this program when I feel like it's necessary. What's been accomplished by this group is unbelievable. I mean, it's incredible. They've won 27 games in a row, won four conference titles in a row with a chance for a fifth. They've been in four playoffs, won two out of the last three national championships, and have beaten the best of the best to do it, period.
People who have not focused on what Travis Etienne has done, what Trevor Lawrence has done. People still want to talk about you threw a few interceptions at the beginning of the year. It's a joke. It's a joke. It doesn't even make any sense.
What these receivers have done, what this defense has done, it's incredible. It's just really incredible. These players, they deserve that credit.
I just answered the guy's question because he asked if it meant anything nationally. What are you talking about? Yeah, it's a huge game, has a lot of national relevance for us. If we lose, they want to throw us out because they don't respect who we play, which is another joke of itself. I think we got, what, 10 bowl teams again this year. It's a very competitive league. It proves itself out year in and year out.
Just really proud of what's been accomplished to this point. It's our fourth 12-0 season in the history of our school. More importantly what we've been able to do off the field alongside of the success on the field. Eight out of the last nine years top 10 academically, us, Duke and Northwestern. Just the consistency of being committed to excellence, doing the things right on and off the field, it's just a blessing to be able again to have a front row seat to it all.
People that haven't watched us or paid attention, they've missed a special time and a special group of young people that play with passion, unbelievable belief, will to win, and selflessness. It's incredible to watch.
Q. You called Tony Bennett before the Final Four, spent some time with him over the summer. Do you think you'll hear from him this week now that you're playing Virginia?
DABO: I doubt I'll be getting a good luck call from him. He's going to be pulling for those Cavaliers. If we're fortunate enough to win the game, I'm sure he'll send his well wishes for the post-season.
He I'm sure has kept up, all that. He's into his season. He's a great man, a great coach, a friend. As he should be, he'll be pulling for those Virginia Cavaliers this week.
Q. Have you heard from him at all this season?
DABO: I have not talked to him this season.
Q. You'll be going up against Virginia's quarterback, who leads the ACC in total offense. Your impressions of him, how dangerous is he, what you like about him? Does he remind you of any quarterback you've seen in recent memory?
DABO: Yeah, I wish I could tell you I've seen more tape at this point. Really that's going to be my night tonight, really diving into these guys a little bit more.
I have seen him a little bit. We've had one crossover game early, Florida State, where I got to see him quite a bit. But obviously saw him last year and those things.
He's a great player. First of all, he's a great leader. You just see that in him. He plays with an incredible will to win. He has this belief to him. It's very easy to see that.
He's one of those guys that makes everybody around him better. You can tell, again, he's a great young man and a great leader. That doesn't just happen. He's got the total respect of everyone. Kind of as he goes, they go.
He's dangerous. I mean, he's done a lot of things with his legs. Just in the game the other day, we had a chance to watch it all pretty much the whole game on the bus going down to South Carolina. I mean, he's a difference maker, just truly a guy that can make plays in a lot of different ways.
He's very dynamic. Just seems like he comes up with the big play when he needs to have it. They're passing the ball for 260 plus yards a game. Just a guy that can beat you with his feet and his arm. Going to be a handful for us. Everything is going to go through him. They do a great job schematically to make sure he's equipped with answers. Just going to be a great competitor to have to find a way to beat.
Q. How could the execution have been better along the goal line yesterday on the opening drive?
DABO: First of all, got to keep the ball up inside. We tried to bounce one. Just didn't quite get it blocked well at the point of attack. Those things happen. Good play by them. Not a good job by us.
We bounced back. The rest of the time we got into the red zone, short-yardage situations where you're able to convert. I think we were, man, what was it, our third down we were 12 of 17. Did a great job of converting all day other than that one possession there.
Q. Admiral Yamamoto said after Pearl Harbor that you woke a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve. When they put you fifth coming out of the first committee's ranking, did that fill you with terrible resolve and get your players totally motivated?
DABO: Well, I like that.
We've been totally motivated all year. We really didn't need a playoff ranking of fifth to be motivated. This team has been locked in all year, has done a wonderful job.
They have a lot of playoff experience, so they understand these in-season rankings really don't matter. What matters is where it is in December. So teams that get distracted by that stuff from week-to-week usually get beat. What you got to do is just stay focused.
Having said that, I do think it certainly made our guys kind of raise their eye a little bit. Wow, we must not be very good, or a lot of people don't think we're very good. You go from one to fifth pretty quick.
At the end of the day we're where we hoped to be, and that is in Charlotte with a chance to compete for our league championship. If we can find a way to do that, win it, a chance to go back to the playoff.
It doesn't really matter where we are, one, two, three or four. We just hope to have the opportunity to get there. The next goal for us is the ACC championship, and the next goal after that is to win the closer. We're just hopeful that it works out, we get the shot. We'll be excited to play anybody wherever they send us.
Q. There's an old adage in coaching: offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. Is that true today?
DABO: No, that's never been true to me. I've told my team forever, teams win championships. That's what I believe. Defense doesn't win championships, offense doesn't win championships, but teams win championships. That's just what I believe. I don't buy into anything else.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It's a privilege to be with you today representing the University of Virginia and the players on our team. It's been and is my absolute pleasure to be their coach. I love everything about our team, who they are, how they're playing, the growth and progress that they're seeing, that we've seen as a program over the past four seasons.
Each year has brought new steps and new challenges and new opportunities for growth and development. This stage and this step is the next in our process and our progress. We're looking forward to it. We're certainly anxious to play and represent our school, our institution, and our side of the league in the best way that we can.
I'll take questions.
Q. How hard is it to prepare for an opponent you haven't played in six years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It certainly is a challenge because there are no existing reference points or shared experiences of a coach or a team that you can refer to that are relevant.
I don't have any experience against Clemson or Coach Swinney or really any of their existing players. So really at that point the focus certainly has to be really more on your own scheme, your own strategy, your own execution, your own position mastery, mindset, everything that you can control.
My job hopefully is to predict and assess and plan for in the very best way I can of what the opponent will be like and move from there.
Q. A lot of people are comparing this to David and Goliath. At least David had a slingshot. You shouldn't have any trouble with bulletin board material with your players because no one expects you to win. Would that be the case?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that's probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year. 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.
Q. When you told us Saturday there is nothing that Bryce can't do, we didn't realize that also meant playing the same week he was hospitalized with tonsillitis. Was there a moment or moments during the week when you thought you might not have him Saturday? Given all that he's dealt with, neck, thumb, knee, have you ever coached someone who is quite this tough?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Regarding the first part of the question, Bryce's playing was never in question, it was at what level, what health, what recovery stage he would be in for the game.
So he was hospitalized immediately after our previous game. He missed the first day of full practice of the week. He returned the next day of full practice, then continued recovering stronger as the week went.
I don't think it's fair to compare Bryce. What I certainly can say is after what you just mentioned and listed, anyone that would underestimate him, what he's capable of, simply hasn't been paying attention at to what he has accomplished, what he continues to accomplish, and what he will yet accomplish as our quarterback.
Yeah, I would say you underestimate him at your own risk.
Q. As a connoisseur of defense, I don't know how much of Clemson you have studied, but a team that hasn't allowed anyone to get as much as 300 yards this season, what are your impressions of this particular group?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not only this particular group, but past groups as well. I think first of all the leadership from the coordinator 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.
Q. You hinted in your opening about the fact that your program has made this incremental but rapid growth in the time you've been there. Is winning an ACC Championship Game against an opponent like Clemson, playing in a game as many expect like the Orange Bowl, the next step, or in some ways are you cheating a little bit ahead right now with those goals?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the cheating ahead would simply be the result of how resilient our team has been, which then has allowed us to cheat ahead. There's progress that's been made.
The Coastal Division championship, beating Virginia Tech, were certainly two things that had to happen to then have the next door and doors open to us. They have been.
Now what that has allowed is a caliber of opponent on a stage of significance that allows not only the testing and the proving and the battling, but the opportunity. Man, that's exactly what we want for our program.
It's exciting, it's exhilarating, it's challenging all at the same time. It really is an opportunity to rise to what the team earned and earned probably slightly ahead of schedule now for these next couple of opportunities in terms of impact.
The players would not say that. They've earned that again through resiliency. How fast it's approached, it seems like four years has become the reality and it's really exciting.
Q. Specifically looking at your secondary, the resilience of that group, to lose Bryce, everything that group has gone through, how surprised are you or pleased are you that you've been able to patch that thing together and get to where you've gotten?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I really am impressed and thankful for the job Nick Howell has done as our coordinator and secondary coach. It has been patched. It's been resorted and rethought with as much innovation as we can apply to get us in a different style of play to where we are.
That's what good coaches do. It's what good staffs do. You innovate, adjust, match up to whatever the opponent is, whatever current resources you have, then you do the best you can. That's what we've done. We've done enough to win our side and get to where we are.
Q. Their offense with Trevor, what kind of challenge would that present to your secondary?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: A significant challenge, not only at quarterback, but runningback and wide receiver. 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.
Q. When you don't play a team like Clemson in the regular season in four years now, do you watch them play?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Every possible comparison and analytic that we can make with our existing staff and resources we are making. There isn't a true point of reference, not having crossed over, but there are teams that they have played that we have played. One step removed, there is some relevance there.
However, this stage is a different stage. It's a new step for the program. Our program, there's a newness to it, an excitement about it, a hungriness that radiates from our team right now and their desire to do really well in this game.
In terms of points of reference, no one on our team has been or experienced anything like it. That doesn't mean they're hesitant nor afraid of it. They're all looking forward to the challenge.
Q. What kind of relationship do you have with Dabo?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Professional mostly, obviously through the ACC meetings. Then the Nike trip, which some of us as coaches are invited on and able to take. Holly and I have had a chance to meet he and his wife, visit on occasion. Just been really impressed in my interactions with him.
But don't know him extremely well on a personal level. Certainly from a professional and more than just professional but not quite to the level of long time friends or quite to that point, but I've just been really impressed and admire the job he's done and does.
Q. In the first half against Virginia Tech, Bryce looked like he was pushing the ball a little bit, almost as if he had an arm problem. After the game I asked him about that, and he said it was a matter of footwork and placement. Did you see that? Did someone correct him on that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That was happening between each series. The footing in the game on Friday, as you watch it, there were multiple players slipping. That just kind of is inherent of where grass fields are this time of year. The footing on the field was effective, but there was some slipping and sliding. That affected him a little bit, which means the top of his drop and balance was slightly off.
Then there was some indecision, even where the ball was going to go. A couple of throws, it looks like he was trying to pull off kind of mid delivery. So it was some indecision as well as footwork early on when saw you a few of those balls that either fluttered short or went wide.
Q. Will you encourage him to be less indecisive this weekend?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Certainly. One of the strengths of Virginia Tech was the assessment you have to do and make mid play of what coverage they were going to be in. Virginia Tech just caught us a few times at the top of his drop. We believed it was one coverage, and the ball would go here, and they basically baited us and fooled us into it, which then had him try to withdraw a throw or in other cases the footwork part of it.
The good thing you mentioned was that it was mostly in the first half and rarely occurred after that. I think it was addressed, addressed properly, effectively, then we went on to play well.
Q. Given all that Clemson has accomplished, their winning streak, national championship, you're not new to this deal as a head coach, have you faced any more daunting challenge than what you'll face Saturday night?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don't see the word as 'daunting'. I see an amazing opportunity. The brutal fact acknowledgment, everyone else will draw that, come to their own conclusions that way. I see an amazing chance for my team, my coaches and my staff to try as hard as we can try to learn, grow, development and compete. That's what we intend to do.
Q. You've had some landmark victories the past couple years: Boise State, Miami, South Carolina. How much will you draw upon those experiences in terms of having games to where people didn't give you much of a chance and you won anyway?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not so much. Our team is I would say pretty much over that. They want to win every single week. They believe they're capable of performing against any opponent on any given week. Really the mindset has as much to do with outcome as anything.
I'm really not looking to present points of reference for them as to things we've done in the past against other opponents. I'm really working on and just presenting to our team what can we control, what we can we influence, spending all of our time focusing on that. There aren't any other points of reference against this team that are relevant.
The other points of reference that have been mentioned, other games we played, it's not this opponent, it's not this stage. Really the only point that's similar is the mindset we had going into those games in terms of our preparation.
So really that's the best gift I can give our team, is to be well prepared and help them be well prepared.
Q. What is the value, in your opinion, of just having one more game thrown into the schedule?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It's off the scale for our program at this time on our quest for national relevance. Last week did wonders for achievement and moving the needle for our program, hitting new benchmarks and metrics. Now all that does is qualify us, and that qualification isn't a gift and it's not random, it's something we've earned. It's qualified us and our team has earned the chance now for the next and significantly bigger opportunity and challenge.
Those two things are usually synonymous, opportunity and challenge. We've framed it as such. It's a magical opportunity for our program.
Q. You've faced a lot of good runningbacks in your career. You're going to be going up against another great one in Travis Etienne. What challenge does he bring to your defense? Does he remind you of anyone else you faced over the years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Doesn't really remind me of anyone else. Size, speed, durability, productivity, versatility, really every quality that you can say in terms of positive about a player, the Clemson runningback has. That alone is a challenge enough. When you add a quarterback, personnel in play, receiver personnel in play, offensive line personnel in play to that, that makes it even more challenging.
So it's difficult to add additional resources simply to the run game knowing what the threats downfield look like, what the quarterback is capable of.
The combination of all those things really make not only Etienne a really strong player in their own right, but when the supporting cast around him is also strong, that even makes it more vibrant in terms of his production.
Q. You talked about Clemson's defense a little bit earlier. Does that remind you of any defense you've faced in the last couple years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it doesn't. Statistically it's stronger. Schematically I think it's better developed. Production-wise it's yielding at a higher level. I've seen a lot of good defenses and been a part of a lot of good defenses. This one, besides the production, the personnel and the execution is just being done at a really high level. That's bred confidence, which allows young people to carry themselves in a way and work together in a way that is formidable.
I'm impressed. They've done a really nice job over time in not only building their program but establishing that component of the program.
Q. You were close to this breakthrough at the end of last year. Maybe a couple of overtime losses from being in the position. How much did those games kind of infuse spring ball, off-season practice, getting this team prepared for the challenge this year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That's a really relevant question, probably the most significant of the day of things that I've answered.
We had two overtime losses after being in a similar position about four weeks remaining in last year's season. We went on the road a couple of times, had again a few overtime losses. I just hadn't prepared the team quite enough. We weren't quite mature enough, sound enough, not quite productive enough in the critical moments to break through.
None of that was accidental. That was exactly where we were, who I'd led our team to be at that point. In the off-season we recognized we were close. We recognized the critical plays, critical moments, that bigger stages was going to be part of our next step in what we call in our quest for unbroken growth, which this team has certainly done.
I expect each team to add to what the previous team has done. That's happened in each of the four years, which has qualified us now for this stage, which is an unknown for our team, our program and our institution.
That's all really positive. So now a more masterful job has to be done on my part to make what is not normal normal for this team in a short amount of time, infusing some of the qualities that are necessary to manage the next caliber of opponent, on the next caliber of stage, with the next level of visibility so we can move forward. That's all a new place for us, which is an exciting place to be.
Q. Was there any effect you could measure from Virginia's basketball success last year? Your athletes talk, know some of their athletes. Can that kind of success filter through an entire athletic department, particularly your team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, sure. At the University of Virginia what I have learned in coming here is the university, as well as the athletic department, expects excellence. Football had been lagging behind, had kind of been supported and viewed as an afterthought for a significant amount of time.
I was hired to influence and correct that, as well as our new administration. That is happening. Just as we spoke, if we were to have spoken a week ago, our men's soccer team was ranked number one, our women's soccer team was ranked number one, our field hockey team was in the semifinals, our basketball team just won the national championship, here we are competing for an ACC football championship.
That seems normal and commonplace at the University of Virginia, which is not normal and it's not commonplace. It's pretty remarkable.
But the culture you're mentioning, as players and young people communicate, they certainly can say, If that person or if that team can do this, they don't seem that much different than us, then maybe this is possible.
I think it certainly helps. I can't tell you to the degree of influence, but I think it does have an influence.
Q. Back to Clemson's defense. You mentioned schematically they're very advanced. What are the things they do defensively schematically that make them so difficult to prepare for?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would say one of the things I like and admire is that it's not the same plan each week. A lot of teams, they take the approach that it will be our system with very few changes, we're just going to do is better and apply it to the next opponent and their style.
I like the approach that Clemson uses more frequently than most. There is a core, there is a standard amount of defenses played, but there's innovations that happen week-to-week, specific to opponents, specific to situations, specific to personnel groups, that you have to kind of discover as you go. They're usually disguised. There's movement associated either pre or post snap that make it more difficult to discern.
All those subtle things take extra work and extra time, are really kind of a next level of coaching that I think that Clemson is doing routinely. That takes time to build and takes really strong and cerebral players to pull off as well as coaches. That's what they're doing.
They're doing a really nice job.
Q. You mentioned this game, you called it a magical opportunity. In the outside perspective it's a tough challenge. From the inside for you, for your players, how excited are you to have this opportunity?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It's off the chart. I came to the University of Virginia because I like hard things, doing hard things. I chose this job because I crave building and developing and growing. The harder the better.
There hasn't been one easy step or one easy game in the past four years for our program. But the players have earned this chance in the timeframe they've earned it. It just seems fitting. It doesn't guarantee outcome in any different way except that it is directly in alignment with the things we like to do, which we view as hard things together. This will be exactly that.
What else would we rather be doing? If you ask myself or my team, there's nothing else we'd rather be doing. The bigger, the harder the challenge, the more we like it. This just happens to be one of the biggest and hardest. Yeah, we're really looking forward to it.
Q. (Question about Hasise Dubois.)
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would just say it's been transformative not only as a player but a person. His maturity, his competitive spirit, his discipline has grown by leaps and bounds. The leadership that he's willing to manifest on behalf of our team, the direction we're going, has been critical, as well as the plays he's made.
It's one of the true gifts of being a coach, is being able to see young people develop and grow and trust you enough to apply just some of the simple suggestions that you give along the way. Hasise has done that. I think he'll continue to do that from this point forward.
He has become our most consistent play-maker at receiver, and certainly the best when it comes to contested catches, making the hard and critical play. He just always seems to come up with those plays when we need him.
I'm really thankful that I'm able to coach him, just so pleased with the progress that he has shown not only over year one but year two, year three, year four. His progress his mirrored or program's progress where it's been pretty rapid but steady and incremental as we have become a different program than we were.
Q. Has the leadership role he's had in the Thursday's Hero program played a role in his personal development?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it's a natural fit for him. I certainly think it is because he's in front of his peers. He was influenced in that regard by Doni Dowling. Just the main difference I would say between Doni and Hasise is I've had Hasise longer. I loved and cherished both players.
Some of those qualities were passed from Doni to Hasise in terms of competitive spirit and critical plays, giving to others in terms of Thursday's Hero. It's just been fun to have and be with Hasise a little longer to see even more growth happen than the short time I was with Doni.