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Game at No. 25 BYU starts key stretch for Virginia to earn national respect

Game at No. 25 BYU starts key stretch for Virginia to earn national respect

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Duke Virginia Football

Virginia tailback Wayne Taulapapa, front, tries to gain yardage against Duke during their game at Scott Stadium on Oct. 16.

Virginia’s four-game win streak and a passing attack that is the most prolific among Power Five football teams hasn’t garnered the Cavaliers much in the way of national respect.

But as the team heads to Utah to face No. 25 BYU, the first of three straight games against ranked opponents, senior running back Wayne Taulapapa said that isn’t a concern.

“Our job is to do so well that people have no other choice but to watch,” he said this week. “The fame will come.”

Saturday night kicks off a stretch of three straight games could elevate UVa’s national standing. After the BYU trip, Virginia (6-2) has an open date before hosting No. 11 Notre Dame and then playing at No. 17 Pittsburgh.

And while first two of those contests won’t impact the ACC Coastal Division standings, they will go a long way to swaying how the nation views both Virginia and its star quarterback, Brennan Armstrong. The third, at Pittsburgh, could be the Cavaliers’ biggest game of the season.

It’s a stretch that will reveal whether the team’s 6-2 record — and Armstrong’s national-best 3,220 passing yards — are a reflection of ability or a product of a weak early schedule.

UVa has five wins against FBS opponents, four of whom have losing records (Illinois, Miami, Duke and Georgia Tech). The combined record of the teams Virginia beat in those five games? 16-20.

It’s 2-2 against teams over .500, a mark that includes a home win over FCS William & Mary.

Up next? Three straight against ranked opponents who hold a combined mark of 18-4.

“I definitely think you look at it that way,” said junior linebacker Nick Jackson. “It’s definitely a stretch where you want to win every single game. You want to go 10-2. That’s the mindset right now. And I truly believe we’re going to go 10-2.”

But Jackson and senior center Olu Oluwatimi said the focus this week is squarely on winning one game — BYU. The fact that the Cougars are ranked and the fact that it’s a homecoming for UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall, who spent 13 years in Provo, including 11 as head coach, adds juicy storylines for fans and the media. For the players? BYU is the next “nameless and faceless” opponent.

“Nobody’s thinking about that,” said Oluwatimi. “We’re a team that really stays locked in to the task ahead. We’re not worried about the rankings. We’re not worried about the team that’s ranked.”

And, as Taulapapa noted, if UVa takes care of business against BYU, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and then against rival Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale, the rest will take care of itself.

“We’re about to face a great stretch of teams,” said Taulapapa. “With these four games, it’s really important that we just strap up and get ready for what’s to come. But I do think as we continue to play hard and Brennan continues to do well as he has been — the greatest quarterback in this league — then we’ll get the national respect that we deserve.”

Of course, to do that, Virginia will need to improve defensively. The 48-0 shutout of Duke on Oct. 16 may have been pan full of fool’s gold. The Cavaliers, plagued by big plays all season, gave up three touchdowns of 35 yards or longer to Georgia Tech in a 48-40 win.

It’s given up 21 plays of 30 yards or more this season. Only last-place Duke (22) has allowed more in the ACC.

Still, Jackson said he believes the defense is trending in the right direction.

“I definitely think we’re gaining momentum each week,” he said. “We’re playing harder, faster and more assignment sound.”

This next stretch figures to test that.

NOTE: Virginia is still holding out hope that wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. (knee) will be able to play this season, possibly returning after the team’s open date, a source said. Davis has been running and working out but still has not returned to full practicing.

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