Unsung Hero Hanback Huge Contributor In Ending The Streak

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Tech QB Hendon Hooker fumbles in the end zone after being hit by Virginia’s Mandy Alonso. The Cavaliers recovered for the game’s final and pivotal TD (Photos by John Markon).

In a game featuring two powerful offenses, virtually no one would have suspected that the touchdown that would lock the victory would be scored by a defensive lineman. 

Virginia had taken a 33-30 lead on a career-long, 48-yard field goal by Brian Delaney with 1:23 remaining in the game, set up by the last of two Noah Taylor interceptions.

Virginia Tech got the ball back at its own 18, but found itself backed up to its own end zone after back-to-back-to-back sacks by Aaron Faumui and Zane Zandier on first down, then by Matt Gahm on second-and-12 at the Tech 16, then the game-breaker.

On third-and-21 from the 7-yard line, Tech’s Hendon Hooker dropped back to pass and was mauled by UVA defensive end Mandy Alonso, who separated the ball from the quarterback in the end zone. Senior end Eli Hanback, a life-long Virginia fan before becoming a Cavalier player, pounced on the pigskin for a touchdown.

Virginia 39, Tech 30.

It was the end of the streak, a streak that had weighed heavily on every Wahoo, particularly Hanback, a fifth-year senior who elected to come back and stop the 15 years of losing to UVA’s state rival.

“This means the world to me,” Hanback said. “The last time we beat Virginia Tech, I was seven years old. I’m 23 now. To be on the team that broke the streak is the best feeling in the world.”

Perhaps it was only fitting that the unsung hero of Virginia’s football team was the one responsible for icing the victory. All season long, actually the last two seasons, Bronco Mendenhall has sung Hanback’s praises. He reminds every chance he gets that Hanback is a guy who always shows up, seeks no glory, shuns the spotlight, and just does his job with no drama.

“How about Eli Hanback being the final touchdown after four years starting every game?” Mendenhall said in his postgame press conference Friday. “There’s never been a moment where he has faltered or wavered [or been] anything other than resolute.

“That can’t be scripted any better. I mean, there’s a movie that ought to happen about that. I don’t know who would play Eli, but he’d be pretty lucky.”

When I asked Hanback who would play him in a movie, he chuckled to himself.

“You’ve got to find a big actor I guess,” said Hanback, wearing a colorful lei around his neck, the lei adorned with myriad of candy treats.

The fumble was caused when Alonso smothered Hooker.

“We just ran a stunt and I was the lucky one who got free and had a straight shot to the quarterback,” said Alonso, a junior end from Miami. “The whole game, basically the whole week, we felt it was going to come down to [the defense]. Those last two minutes, we knew we were going to have to go out there and make a stop. We were just going full speed ahead to go after [Hooker].”

Virginia’s defense sacked Hooker six times in the game.

“When I was falling down, I realized the ball was coming out and I was trying to get it, and I saw Eli fall on it. Then it was just celebration,” Alonso said.

Hanback didn’t even attempt to embellish his effort.

“It was just like the last one,” Hanback said of the recovery. “I didn’t do anything. I just fell on it. Mandy got the sack, Mandy got the ball out. All the credit to him. Aaron, Matt, we were all getting after the quarterback on that last drive.”

UVA lineman Eli Hanback holds the ball aloft after recovering a fumble in the end zone for the game-clinching touchdown.

And, the football? What happened to the football? Did they tuck it away as a souvenir for Hanback?

“I think Joey [Blount] took it,” Hanback said. “We got the cup and that’s all that matters.”

The cup is the Commonwealth Cup, a trophy that goes to the winner of the game, something that hasn’t called Charlottesville home since 2003.

Bringing that trophy home was one of Hanback’s inspirations to return for a fifth year.

“Yes, definitely,” he said. “The way things ended last year was heartbreaking (an overtime loss in Blacksburg). To come back and have one more shot at it on our home field was definitely a part of [the decision].”

Turned out to be a great decision for Virginia’s football program and for Hanback, who was a Cavalier fan back in ‘03 when UVA last won the game. After his meeting with media Friday afternoon, he was off to greet family members for dinner.

“This win has already hit me … hard,” Hanback said, noting he didn’t need to wait to absorb what it all meant. “I’m going to meet family for dinner and they’re probably more excited than even I am.”

Oh, and who would play Bronco in such a movie, Mendenhall was asked?

“Oh, I don’t know, just a random person,” the coach laughed.

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