By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Ten games into the season, a weary University of Virginia football team was able to rest and recharge during the second of its two bye weeks.
“You can’t write a better schedule,” senior linebacker Jordan Mack said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
With the break behind them, the Cavaliers are looking to deliver a strong closing statement. Not since 2011 have they won eight regular-season games. Not since 2007 have they won nine.
Each of those feats is within the Wahoos’ reach as they prepare for their final two regular-season games, both of which are at Scott Stadium.
“I’m so glad that we’ve had a bye to help our team recover,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It’s really fortunate that our next two games are at home, and I’m proud of the season we’ve had to this point and looking forward to continuing to improve our team and our program.”
A victory over Virginia Tech in the Nov. 29 regular-season finale would clinch the Coastal Division title –– and an appearance in the ACC championship game –– for UVA. But the Hoos’ attention is elsewhere this week.
“It starts with Liberty,” senior quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “We have to knock off Liberty before we talk about anyone else.”
Senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback said: “That’s our only focus, and that needs to be our only focus right now.”
At noon Saturday, the Cavaliers (7-3) host the Flames (6-4), who are in their first season under former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze.
This will be the second football game between schools located about 65 miles apart. In 2018, UVA defeated Liberty 45-24 in Charlottesville.
As was the case last season, the Flames are vulnerable defensively, but their offense is capable of putting up big numbers. Liberty, led by quarterback Stephen Calvert and wide receiver Anton Gandy-Golden, is averaging 443.2 yards and 32.8 points per game.
“From the defensive perspective, they have a very good offense,” Hanback said. “They have a very good quarterback, and they’re efficient in running and passing the ball. We know they like to pass a little more [than run], and this is one of the best quarterbacks in the country at doing that. So we have a tall task ahead of us, and I think there’s even more of a focus on playing Liberty and not thinking about anything else other than that.”
A 6-2, 180-pound senior, Calvert has completed 201 of 327 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,941 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, with only three interceptions. Gandy-Golden, a 6-4, 220-pound senior, has 64 receptions for 1,244 yards and eight TDs.
“Offensively, they’re very dynamic, very capable of explosive plays,” Mack said. “So it’s all about limiting the explosive plays that they can create.”
For anyone who might be tempted to overlook the Flames, Mendenhall said, some video review of their games serves as “a quick reality check.”
Mendenhall replied emphatically when asked at his weekly press conference if he might consider resting players who have been banged up in order to keep them fresh for the regular-season finale.
“No,” Mendenhall said. “We’ll play every single player that’s available to us in this game. That’s what I believe is necessary. It sounds like I view the quality of this opponent at a higher level than maybe what the outside world does, and we want to improve our football team … We certainly want to win, and that’s going to require everything.”
Perkins noted that UVA struggled to defeat Old Dominion at Scott Stadium early in the season. The Monarchs are 1-9 this season.
“So we can’t overlook anybody,” Perkins said. “We have to focus, and we are focused. I think we’re doing a really good job of dialing into Liberty, and we’ve just got to keep doing that and keep pressing that issue.”
The Cavaliers’ schedule has presented varying challenges as the season has progressed. Each of their first three home games started at 7 p.m. or later, and the fourth kicked off at 3:30 p.m. The fifth, however, started at 12:30 p.m., and the last two kick off at noon.
“It’s definitely an adjustment going from 7:30 to 12:30 or 7 to 12,” Hanback said. “It speeds things up a little bit in one’s preparation. It’s not that big a deal, because we have done it already, but it definitely is a little bit of a change, considering we were playing a night game almost every week, it seemed like.”
Mendenhall’s personal preference?
“Earlier means less anxiety for the head coach,” he said, smiling. “Those waiting-around-all-day games, those are tough. You’d think at 53 I would have possibly mastered that. I haven’t. So it’s much easier for a program and a staff and players to manage an earlier game with anxiety and just things to do.”
Mendenhall noted, however, that the turnout for night games at Scott Stadium is generally better than for early afternoon games.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have a great attendance or great support at noon,” Mendenhall said, “but just in the time I’ve been here, it seems like the night games match a little bit better.”
This is Mendenhall’s fourth season at UVA, where the program bears little resemblance to the one he took over in December 2015.
After finishing 2-10 in 2016, the Hoos improved to 6-7 in 2017. Virginia finished 8-5 last season after blanking South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl.
In 2018, however, the Cavaliers closed the regular season with back-to-back overtime losses, the first at Georgia Tech and the second at Virginia Tech, and those defeats knocked them out of the race for the Coastal Division title.
Now comes an opportunity for UVA, which is 5-0 at home this season, to take another step forward.
“It’s the final stretch of the regular season, and November always determines conference championships,” Mendenhall said. “It really determines whether goals are met, what metrics are hit, and really the final identity of a team for a year prior to the postseason … So really about now is when the world of college football starts to take shape, not only conference-wise but nationally.”
The Hoos haven’t played since Nov. 9, when they defeated Georgia Tech 33-28 at Scott Stadium in a game that was much closer than expected. Injuries have ravaged Virginia’s secondary, and the Yellow Jackets’ offense totaled 327 yards.
UVA’s defense also struggled Nov. 2 against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Cavaliers won that shootout 38-31.
For much of the season, the Cavaliers’ defense has been the more effective of the two units, but in the past two games “the offense has been the one carrying us,” Hanback said. “They’ve been playing great. The O-line, Bryce, all the receivers, running backs and everyone as a collective on offense has been doing really well. As a defense, as a collective, we haven’t been playing to our standard. We’ve gotten stops when we needed to here and there the last two weeks, but we need to be more consistent and hold ourselves to a higher standard, even with the injuries we’ve had.”
Perkins, who hurt his knee during training camp in August, is healthy again and has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of UVA’s past two games. Perhaps a bigger factor in Virginia’s increased production, however, has been the steady progress of an offensive line that includes no seniors.
UVA’s starters up front are sophomore Bobby Haskins at left tackle, sophomore Ryan Nelson at left guard, sophomore Olusegun Oluwatimi at center, junior Chris Glaser at right guard, and junior Dillon Reinkensmeyer at right tackle.
Mendenhall said he’s “really excited for that group [and] the confidence that they carry themselves with and the success that they’re having. It’s been a lot of work in the making, and it’s fun to see the gradual steps [they’ve taken] … I give that group a lot of credit and their coaches for it’s been a long, hard, difficult, and slow climb, but, again, resilience, and a lot of work has just won the day. I should say is winning the day. Won would be past tense. It’s winning the day, and we’re still improving.”