A focused University of Virginia football squad had little trouble with in-state foe Liberty on Saturday afternoon, handing the Flames a 55-27 defeat in Scott Stadium. The win is Virginia’s eighth of the 2019 campaign, marking the first time the program has reached eight wins in a regular season since 2011. The Cavaliers reached the 8-win mark in 2018 after defeating South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
“I’m really thankful for the work the staff and the players have put in,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said following the win. “It’s gratifying to have our eighth win in back-to-back seasons. A year ago it took us through our bowl game to get our eighth win, and here we have it in the regular season with still one game to go. With one game remaining in the regular season, the Coastal championship will be on the line and I think that reflects growth and progress within the program and I think it reflects steady and unbroken growth within the progress in four years to this point.”
Since the Hoos took down Georgia Tech, Virginia coaches and players have known what’s at stake in next Friday’s home matchup with Virginia Tech. An obvious question was whether the players would overlook a solid Liberty (6-5) program with Coastal division and in-state supremacy on the line next week. UVA answered those questions early, jumping out to a 10-0 lead while controlling the first 11 minutes-plus of the first quarter.
After holding Liberty to a three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, Virginia registered the game’s first score when quarterback Bryce Perkins found wide receiver Terrell Jana in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown pass. Displaying complementary football at its best, the Hoos sent Liberty 10 yards backwards on the opening drive, resulting in great field position for the offense, which only had to drive 47 yards for a 7-0 lead. UVA’s offense reached the red zone once again on its second drive but had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Brian Delaney, whose successful kick put the Hoos up by 10.
Liberty, which is vying for its first ever bowl game, would answer UVA’s early success with two consecutive touchdowns. Big plays that have hurt the Cavalier defense resurfaced. Quarterback Stephen Calvert connected with running back Peytton Pickett, who must enjoy playing in Scott Stadium given his 117-yard rushing performance last season, for a 56-yard pass play to help set up a 6-yard touchdown run by running back Frankie Hickson.
After forcing a Virginia punt, the Flames took a second quarter lead when Calvert found Noah Frith over the middle for a 32-yard touchdown pass on 3rd and 17. The game would turn on Liberty’s ensuing drive, however.
Calvert, whose middle name is Buckshot, entered the game having attempted 281 straight passes without an interception and having thrown three interceptions all season long. His no-interception streak reached 295 before it came to an end in rough fashion.
Liberty had a 4-point lead and a first down at the Virginia 38 when Calvert misfired badly. Feeling the heat of an intense Cavalier pass rush, the senior signal caller heaved a pass into the middle of the field. Only Virginia defensive backs were in the area, and junior safety De’Vante Cross came away with the interception near the goal line. Cross returned the interception 52 yards to the Liberty 42.
“To be honest with you, I have no idea what happened,” Cross said. “I saw the ball in the air, and it was high up there, so I first looked around to see if there was anyone out there. There wasn’t so I just thought wow he really threw it out here as a freebee so I just took advantage of it.”
Virginia’s offense capitalized five plays later, when junior running back Lamont Atkins crossed the goal line for a 3-yard touchdown run. The home team regained the lead, and this time they would not relinquish it.
Following a defensive stop and a 22-yard pass from Perkins to an emerging Billy Kemp IV, Atkins, who is seldom used as a rusher, scampered 33 yards to the Liberty 4. True freshman tailback Mike Hollins scored on a 4-yard touchdown run the very next play to give the Cavaliers the 24-14 lead they would take into halftime.
Virginia opened the second half with another touchdown when Perkins found Joe Reed for a 7-yard score. The 59-yard scoring drive included some trickery when, on 4th-and-9 at the Liberty 31, UVA ran a fake field goal play. Backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw a strike to outside linebacker Charles Snowden for 24 yards and a first down.
A Perkins 2-yard touchdown run with 4:41 remaining in the third put the Hoos up 38-14, and though Liberty would answer that score quickly with a touchdown of their own, the Flames could not keep pace. The Hoos added two more touchdowns and a field goal while Liberty managed just two field goals to close out the game.
“They did a really good job of getting after us. The defense brought a lot of pressure. They did a really good job switching up their defenses and their fronts. They were well prepared and they came out fighting,” Calvert said of Liberty’s second half struggles. Calvert, who has thrown five interceptions – three last year, two on Saturday – against Virginia the last two seasons, completed only six-of-18 passes in the second half in today’s loss.
Virginia’s defense played better today, but once again the main story for the Cavaliers was the offense. After struggling in a road loss to Louisville, the Cavalier offense has scored at least 33 points in each of its past three games. The offense was more balanced against Liberty, relying less on Perkins’ legs. Instead, the running back trio of junior PK Kier (10 carries, 82 yards, 1 TD), Atkins (nine carries, 61 yards, 1 TD), and Hollins (eight carries, 27 yards, 1 TD) accounted for 170 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries, an average of 6.3 yards per rush. Virginia totaled 227 yards rushing.
Perkins of course did his part, passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 30 yards and another score. Ten different receivers caught passes highlighted by Jana, Kemp IV, and Reed, who had four catches apiece. Jana, a junior who has really come on in the past several games, had a team-high 56 yards receiving and a touchdown.
“It’s our ideal if you look at the balance on the sheet today,” Mendenhall said. “When you have the running back run-game in addition to the quarterback run-game in addition to the throw-game, that becomes more of the intent of what we would like to do on a consistent basis. It’s encouraging, it’s needed and it’s necessary. It’s coming at the right time in these last three or four weeks.”
Not only was UVA balanced on offense, but the red zone efficiency exhibited against UNC and Georgia Tech continued against Liberty. Virginia was a perfect 8-of-8 in red zone scoring chances against the Flames, who boasted one of the nation’s stingiest red zone defenses coming in. UVA is now 19-for-19 scoring in the red zone in the past three games. Most importantly, the Hoos are scoring touchdowns. Of those 19 red zone scores, Virginia has put the ball in the end zone 14 times. UVA finished the Liberty game with six touchdowns and two field goals inside the red zone. The Cavaliers’ final score came on a big play – 44-yard pass from Armstrong to true freshman wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks.
Additionally, Virginia dominated the time of possession (38:45 to 21:15) and avoided turnovers for a third straight game. Perkins fumbled once against the Flames but was able to recover.
Virginia’s defense surrendered 392 yards, including 313 yards passing, to the Flames. In his first ever start, cornerback Heskin Smith Jr. was targeted throughout the game. He responded well while frequently guarding the Flames’ best receiver, Antonio Gandy-Golden. Gandy-Golden finished with six catches for 60 yards and a touchdown, but Smith made some pass breakups against the Biletnikoff Award semifinalist and finished with a team-high eight tackles (six solo) and two pass breakups.
Cross recorded another interception in the second half. Defensive linemen Aaron Faumui and Eli Hanback and linebackers Jordan Mack and Nick Jackson combined for three sacks. The sophomore Faumui had 2.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks.
As time ticked down, chants of “we want the Hokies” coursed through Scott Stadium. The red-hot Hokies are indeed coming, and their 28-0 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday means that next Friday’s matchup in Scott Stadium will be for more than just the Commonwealth Cup. It’ll be for the ACC Coastal Division title and the right to face Clemson in the ACC Championship game.
A Coastal title, defeating the in-state rival for the first time since 2003 … there is a ton on the line next Friday, but Mendenhall wants to keep his team focused the way they were this week.
“The reality is that we have the Coastal Division championship and basically the state championship and a lot to play for,” said Mendenhall, whose team has won more games – three – in November this season than it did total in the three previous seasons. “Now that we’ve said all that, it becomes interference. It’s playing the game, preparing for the schemes, strategies and matchups and anything that allows us to drift outside of that really works counter to our preparations. It really is all about the game within the lines, not anything else. My message every single day is coming right back to the execution.”