|Virginia, Navy stumble into Military Bowl|
Virginia enters the Military Bowl against Navy on somewhat of a high, qualifying for a postseason berth for the first time in six years.
Although the Cavaliers (6-6) are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the disappointment of a 2-10 season a year ago seems long past. In only his second year as Virginia's coach, Bronco Mendenhall directed the Cavaliers to a bowl bid.
"It's like being reborn. A year ago, staying home was very foreign, was very humbling," said Mendenhall, who went to a bowl game in all 11 years that he was at BYU.
Navy (6-6) will try to overcome a low stretch when it plays host to the Cavaliers on Thursday at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. The Midshipmen lost their last three games to Notre Dame, Houston and rival Army. They will play in a bowl game for the 14th time in 15 seasons.
The Cavaliers started the season 5-1, including a road victory over Mountain West champion Boise State, before struggling at season's end. Virginia lost five of their last six games, including three in a row to Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech. The rival Hokies shut them out 10-0.
"What he's done at Virginia is not surprising, the turnaround he's had there," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said about Mendenhall. "He's a phenomenal football coach but even a better person."
Quarterback Kurt Benkert is a significant reason why the Cavaliers reached the postseason again. He has thrown for 3,062 yards with 25 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
He is the first Virginia quarterback to eclipse 3,000 yards in a season. Matt Schaub's school record of 2,976 passing yards stood since 2002.
Against Miami's quality defense, Benkert threw for 384 yards and a season-best four touchdowns.
Benkert must handle the pressure of generating all the offense because Virginia's running game is meager. The Cavaliers rank 125th out of 129 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.8 yards per game).
Benkert will engineer Virginia's offense against a Navy defense that is not spectacular but is not bad either. The Midshipmen rank 59th in total defense, yielding 386.6 yards per game. They are 61st in pass defense, allowing 221.7 yards per game.
While Virginia runs a pro-style passing offense, Navy operates out of the run-oriented triple option. The Midshipmen move the ball efficiently, averaging 426.8 yards per game, which ranks No. 42 in the nation. They are No. 2 nationally in rushing offense with 343 yards a game, trailing only Army (362.3 yards per game).
Mendenhall can show his defense films of the game against ACC Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech, which runs a similar offense as Navy. The Cavaliers need plenty of preparation. They have allowed 178.3 yards per game on the ground, including 220 gained by Georgia Tech in Virginia's 40-36 win on Nov. 4.
Despite the struggles on defense, the Cavaliers have a couple of players who probably will Sundays later in their careers. Middle linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding both were named first-team All-ACC and are currently first and second in the conference in tackles.
Kiser's 134 tackles rank seventh in the country, while Blanding's 121 this season enabled him to pass Jamie Sharper as Virginia's career tackles leader.
Kiser also has 9.5 tackles for losses, five sacks and two fumble recoveries. Blanding has four interceptions. Mendenhall needs stellar performances out of both.
Kiser attended the Gilman School in Baltimore, which is only 25 miles from Annapolis.
"I've actually played there in high school before," Kiser told the Roanoke (Va.) Times of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "It would be cool because my whole family could go.
"It would be cool to play in a meaningful bowl game and get some bowl gifts, too."
Navy has the advantage of playing at home, getting to avoid the logistical nightmare some teams face in bowl games in terms of equipment and an adequate training setup.
Instead of having his team practice at a high school in Washington, Niumatalolo opted to keep the workouts at the Naval Academy.
"We can have our training room, our weight room, our equipment room and our meeting rooms," Niumatalolo said. "I just think from a preparation standpoint, you can't beat your own facilities."