By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The University of Virginia football team set four goals at the start of the year. With one game to play in the regular season, each remains within reach for UVA.
The Cavaliers, who are in their fourth year under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, can reclaim the Commonwealth Cup, win the Coastal Division, win the ACC, and win a bowl game.
“I’m going to acknowledge that for the rest of the day while I’m working on our next opponent, because it’s been a lot of hard work,” Mendenhall said after Virginia’s 55-27 victory over Liberty on a cold, raw Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
The next opponent, of course, is Virginia Tech. In the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, the Wahoos (8-3 overall, 5-2 ACC) host the No. 25 Hokies (8-3, 5-2) at noon Friday at Scott Stadium. The winner will represent the Coastal Division in next month’s ACC championship game.
“We’re going to enjoy this one tonight and worry about everything else tomorrow,” UVA defensive lineman Eli Hanback said Saturday, echoing his head coach.
For the Cavaliers, who have won eight regular-season games for the first time since 2011, there was much to enjoy about their resounding victory over the Flames (6-5). That his team approached an opponent it might have been tempted to overlook “very maturely, very methodically” impressed Mendenhall, who said it “reflects a maturing football program.”
On Military Appreciation Day at Scott Stadium, Virginia totaled 499 yards, including a season-high 227 on the ground. The Cavaliers’ top running back, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa, was held out with an injury, but three others at that position –– juniors PK Kier and Lamont Atkins and true freshman Mike Hollins –– rushed for a touchdown each.
“Our offense continues to grow, build and expand and become what we need them to be and want them to be.” Mendenhall said. “Our offensive line is the catalyst of that, and their continued growth and development, which has been targeted from game one, and has been trending upward the entire season.
“We ran the ball more effectively today than we have the entire year, and so we were able to add balance, which makes us more difficult to stop.’
Facing a prolific offense led by senior quarterback Stephen Calvert and senior wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, UVA gave up 392 yards but recorded three sacks and had two takeaways. Both were interceptions by junior safety De’Vante Cross, who also had a pick against the Flames in 2018.
“We knew they had a great passing offense,” junior linebacker Charles Snowden said, “and so to make the quarterback uncomfortable, we had to just play Virginia football and go after him.”
Virginia scored at least 10 points in each quarter Saturday. The 55 points are the most the Hoos have scored during Mendenhall’s tenure as their head coach.
“I think we’re flowing,” junior wide receiver Terrell Jana said. “The quarterback play is great. The O-line is doing their job. The [running backs] were great today. So I think all the parts are coming together right now, which is a great time.”
TURNING POINT: After falling behind 10-0, Liberty rallied for two touchdowns. The Flames led 14-10 and had the ball at the UVA 38-yard line midway through the second quarter when Calvert, under pressure, heaved a pass downfield.
The only player in the area was Cross, who returned the interception 52 yards to the Liberty 42. Five plays later, Atkins ran 3 yards for a touchdown, and the Hoos were ahead to stay.
“That was huge,” Hanback said of Cross’ pick. “It almost reminded me of back in the ODU game, when [linebacker Zane Zandier] got the interception.”
Calvert had thrown 295 passes without an interception before Cross ended that streak.
“It helped,” Mendenhall said of the takeaway. “It certainly helped.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY: In the locker room after the game, the Cavaliers’ running backs celebrated by dousing their position coach, Mark Atuaia, with water.
“He treats us like family, so he’s super excited,” Kier said later. “He’s probably more excited than we are.”
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has carried the most of any UVA player this season, followed Taulapapa, who has a team-high 11 rushing touchdowns. With Taulapapa sidelined Saturday, his fellow running backs seized their opportunities.
“We were all having fun out there and encouraging each other,” Kier said. “When you play as one, this is what happens.”
Kier rushed 10 times for 82 yards and his first TD as a Cavalier. Also scoring for the first time in his UVA career was Atkins, who gained 61 yards on nine carries. Hollins ran eight times for 27 yards and a TD, his third of the season.
“We’re all brothers,” Atkins said. “We’re all family. We always hang out with each other. No matter what it is, we’re always happy for each other.”
The running backs “did a nice job with the chance they got today,” Mendenhall said. “I’m proud of all of them for that. They stepped up when they had their opportunity.”
GAME BALLS: Perkins ran for 30 yards and passed for 199, giving him more than 3,000 yards of total offense for the second straight season. He’s the first Cavalier to ever hit that mark twice.
UVA’s other standouts included:
• Cross, who was Mendenhall’s choice to break the rock in the locker room after the game, punctuating the Cavaliers’ victory. Cross gained 87 yards on his two interception returns and also broke up a pass.
“It was nice to have the ball in my hands again and get to be able run around and read blocks and try to make something out of a play,” said Cross, who also has played quarterback and wideout at UVA. “It was really exciting to do that today.”
Until junior safety Chris Moore was suspended on the eve of the game for violating team rules, Cross expected to play cornerback against Liberty. He didn’t practice at safety during the week.
“It’s all good, though,” Cross said. Playing multiple positions in the secondary is challenging, “but I’ve been doing it for a big part of the season, so it’s more or less just knocking the rust off.”
• Heskin Smith, a redshirt sophomore cornerback who made his first start as a Cavalier. Smith missed four games in the middle of the season while recovering from knee surgery before returning for the Nov. 9 game against Georgia Tech to bolster UVA’s depleted secondary.
He had eight tackles and two pass breakups, both team highs, against Liberty.
“The last two weeks, thank goodness we have him,” Mendenhall said.
• Seneca Milledge, a true freshman who, in his UVA debut, totaled 130 yards on four kickoff returns. The first time he touched the ball, he had a 37-yard kickoff return, the longest Liberty had allowed this season.
Milledge, a running back on offense, later had a 41-yard return. He suffered a knee injury in early August, but he’s again flashing the speed that made him a champion sprinter at Dunbar High School in Florida.
“He’s fast and he’s very strong and very dynamic,” Mendenhall said. “In practice, it just continues to show and show and show. Again, the injury at the beginning [of training camp] was significant and it’s taken a long time [to recover]. That he’s becoming available now gives us one more return option, which is great. And then with the ball in his hands, that’ll help our offense as well over his career.”
• Dontayvion Wicks, a true freshman wideout who had two receptions for 49 yards, including a 44-yard TD from sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong in the fourth quarter.
• Snowden, a junior who on his first catch as a Cavalier showed the skills that made him a standout receiver at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. On a fake field goal early in the third quarter, Armstrong connected with the 6-7 Snowden on a 24-yard completion.
Two plays later, Perkins passed to senior wideout Joe Reed for a 7-yard touchdown.
“It was really a nice job by Brennan Armstrong, and it wasn’t an easy catch,” Mendenhall said. “I think actually that was a critical point in the game, and I’m really glad we executed it well.”
• Brian Delaney, a junior kicker who was 2 for 2 on field goals, connecting from 26 and 29 yards, and 7 for 7 on extra points.
• Aaron Faumui, a sophomore defensive lineman who led the Cavaliers with 2.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks. He finished with a career-high five tackles.
• Jana, who’s had a stellar season but until Saturday had not scored a TD this fall. He caught an 8-yard pass from Perkins in the first quarter to open the scoring. Jana finished with four receptions for 56 yards.
SOUND BITES: The Cavaliers improved to 2-0 all-time against Liberty, which they defeated at Scott Stadium last year, too. Among the postgame comments:
• Atkins on UVA’s offensive linemen, none of whom is a senior: “They’re really, really coming along. I was extremely proud of them. There were huge holes everywhere, so they made our job a lot easier.”
• Senior wideout Hasise Dubois after Wicks’ touchdown reception: “I taught him well!”
• Snowden on Smith: “He got thrown in there late and he stepped up and did his part. He made plays out there and executed. He had plays made on him, but he never wavered. He just strapped up and played the next play.”
• Jana on the Cavaliers’ approach to the game: “I think it was important just framing this game and understanding where it stood in our end goals. We had a lot of goals at the start of the season, and this game was essential as part of that process.”
• Mendenhall on the strong play of so many UVA underclassmen Saturday: “It’s good for program development, it’s good for morale, and it also gives us a better idea of what the future looks like in terms of talent assessment and how we look.”
• Mendenhall on the Cavaliers’ improved running game: “It’s encouraging, it’s needed, it’s necessary, and it’s coming at the right time.”
COLLISION COURSE: UVA has won three games in a row, and so has Virginia Tech. The Hokies, who shut out Pitt 28-0 on Saturday, have won 15 straight over the Cavaliers and lead the series 57-37-5.
At Lane Stadium last year, Virginia Tech rallied to defeat UVA 34-31 in overtime.