(Nov. 10, 2018)
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – In their final home game of the season, the Virginia Cavaliers offered more evidence that theirs is a program on the rise.
In 2016, Bronco Mendenhall’s first season as the Cavaliers’ head coach, they finished 2-10.
They improved to 6-7 last season and advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. And now, 10 games into their third season under Mendenhall, they’re 7-3 and assured of finishing with a winning record for the first time in seven years.
“There’s a lot that’s happened in a pretty short amount of time,” Mendenhall said Saturday night after UVA defeated Liberty 45-24 at Scott Stadium.
Pleased, but not satisfied. That describes the Wahoos’ mindset as they look ahead to their final two regular-season games. In the ACC’s Coastal Division, UVA is in second place, behind Pittsburgh.
“We’re not done yet,” junior quarterback Bryce Perkins said, “we’ve got to keep going … But [the winning season] definitely means a lot for this program, and it definitely shows the progress and the way we’re moving up.”
In the locker room after the game, no nominations were required when it came time to choose which player would punctuate the victory by smashing a rock bearing the Liberty logo.
UVA players raised the chant – “Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!” – and director of football development and performance Shawn Griswold handed the sledgehammer to No. 2.
“It was a landslide,” Mendenhall said, smiling.
The young man wearing the No. 2 jersey – 6-1, 215-pound junior Joe Reed – did it all for the Cavaliers in their first-ever meeting with the Flames. Reed caught two touchdown passes from Perkins and returned four kickoffs for 193 yards.
His most dramatic return came on the second-half kickoff. With Virginia leading 24-17, Reed fielded Alex Probert’s kickoff at the 10 and raced 90 yards along the right sideline to score a touchdown on a return for the third time in his college career.
“I just saw open space,” Reed said. “My blockers did everything they had been coached to do, and I had the easy part. I just had to run.”
Virginia’s defense gave up a touchdown on Liberty’s next drive but stiffened thereafter. The Flames (4-5) finished with 354 yards of offense, but 240 came in the first half. The Cavaliers held Liberty, which came in averaging 323.9 yards per game passing, to 149 in that category.
UVA intercepted quarterback Stephen Calvert three times. Moreover, midway through the third quarter, when the Flames gambled on fourth-and-1 from their 14, sophomore safety Brenton Nelson broke up Calvert’s pass.
Three plays later, Perkins ran 9 yards for his second touchdown of the game, and sophomore Brian Delaney’s extra point made it 38-24.
“Film study and play recognition got me there,” Nelson said of his break-up. “[Liberty ran] the same play to [cornerback Tim Harris’ side] earlier in the game, so I just knew that it was coming.”
Running back Jordan Ellis, one of the Cavaliers honored in a Senior Day ceremony before the game, carried 25 times for 106 yards and one touchdown. Perkins rushed nine times for 89 yards and two TDs and completed 14 of 22 passes for 168 yards and another two scores, with one interception.
“Phenomenal player,” Liberty heard coach Turner Gill said of Perkins. “He’s the key to them having a lot of success offensively [and] staying on the field. He’s a very, very good football player. I think as he goes, that’s how they’re going to go.”
FITTING FAREWELL: More than two dozen UVA players were recognized in the Senior Day ceremony, including several who have eligibility remaining and will return in 2019.
For the departing seniors, Mendenhall said, “I’m so pleased that they were able to win at home in their last appearance at Scott Stadium. I think it’s significant that they finished with a winning season. Certainly, there’s more games to play, but seven wins is a significant mark for our program, for the University of Virginia, and for what we’re accomplishing, and they can claim ownership of that. They’ve been instrumental in ensuring that that happened.”
Mendenhall added later: “I’m so proud of them and so happy for them to see the success come, because we ask a lot. I don’t give them anything that they don’t earn, and they just keep coming back and working.”
For Ellis, a fifth-year senior from the Atlanta area, this “is going to be my first winning season since I’ve been here, so it means a lot to me, putting the effort into building this program up and laying the foundation,” he said. “I’m just happy to be involved in the start of something great.”
STEPPING UP: After a slow start this season, Reed has become an integral part of the Cavaliers’ passing game. He’s not targeted as often as senior Olamide Zaccheaus or junior Hasise Dubois, but Reed regularly capitalizes on his opportunities.
For the season, he has 18 receptions for 258 yards and four touchdowns. Only Zaccheaus, with six, has more TD catches this season for UVA. Zaccheaus has 67 receptions for 807 yards. Dubois has caught 39 passes for 417 yards and three TDs.
Reed’s improvement can be attributed, Mendenhall said, to “time and consistency. We try and then we re-tweak and recalibrate and remove and then try again, and he tries again. It’s just becoming clearer, not only how we have to coach and teach and communicate with Joe, but then what helps him best in practice in terms of volume and circumstance.
“Much like any student in a teacher-student relationship, eventually you end up finding the right relationship, the right communication style, the right things that work, and so we’re just getting closer.
“It’s really gratifying to see someone who tries so hard and is such a great person and a great kid to be able to see it happen on the field.”
GAME BALLS: The contributions of Reed, Perkins and Ellis have already been noted. Other standouts for the ‘Hoos against Liberty included:
* Senior punter Lester Coleman, who twice in the third quarter pinned the Flames inside their 10 with his kicks.
“I think we played complementary football in the third quarter,” Coleman said. “Once we got those punts inside the 10-yard line, the defense stepped up and we got some big plays.”
* Delaney, who connected on his only field-goal attempt, a 33-yarder in the final seconds of the first half. For the season, he’s 9 for 11 on field goals and 14 for 14 on extra points.
* Zaccheaus, who had seven receptions for 86 yards, both game highs.
* Sophomore inside linebacker Robert Snyder, who finished with a career-high 11 tackles. Snyder returned to the lineup after missing UVA’s loss to Pitt last weekend with a concussion.
* Sophomore De’Vante Cross, who had a career-high eight tackles and an interception in his first start at safety. Cross came to UVA as a quarterback and also has worked at cornerback and wide receiver.
He moved from wideout to the secondary last month.
“I truly do feel like I’ve found a home at safety,” Cross said. “I’m really learning the position and I’m starting to really enjoy the position. It’s really fun for me to be out there and make tackles and make plays on the ball.”
* Senior safety Juan Thornhill, who had a career-best 13 tackles and one of UVA’s interceptions. The pick was his fifth this season and 12thof his career.
Thornhill suffered an ankle injury early in the second quarter of the Pitt game and didn’t return. Thankfully for the Cavaliers, he proved to be a quick healer.
“I was determined to play in this game,” Thornhill said. “I just feel like I play a big role on this team, and if I don’t play, I’m just leaving them out to dry.”
THEY SAID IT: Mendenhall and several players took questions from reporters after the game. Among their comments:
* Reed on his big game: “Tonight it seemed like everything was clicking. I had heart-to-hearts with the seniors that are leaving, just telling them I was going to do everything that I could to send them out with the bang their last time playing here.”
* Reed on getting to break the rock: “That was awesome.”
* Cross on his interception: “Juan bailed me out on that play. What happened was, we had a corner blitz and I went to replace the corner and [the receiver ran] a double move, and I got beat on it, actually. And then Juan, the hero of the day, swooped in and tipped it up. It became tip drill from there and I was able to get my hands on it.”
* Nelson on Cross: “When he came in as a [safety], he didn’t know much. But now he’s playing. He’s making all the right checks. He’s producing. He’s getting turnovers. He’s a stud.”
* Perkins on Reed: “One person doesn’t tackle him. He’s a hard man to stop, and I’m glad he had the day he had today.”
CLOSING STRETCH: The win over Liberty capped a three-game homestand for UVA. The Cavaliers’ final two regular-season games are in Atlanta and Blacksburg, respectively.
Virginia (7-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) visits Georgia Tech (6-4, 4-3) next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Then, in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, UVA meets Virginia Tech (4-5, 3-3) at Lane Stadium on Friday, Nov. 23.
The starting time for the regular-season finale could be announced as early as Monday.
Georgia Tech defeated Miami 27-21 on Saturday night in Atlanta.