Virginia flames Liberty 45-24 for seventh win of season

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (VirginiaSports.com) - In their final home game of the season, the Virginia Cavaliers offered more evidence that theirs is a program on the rise.

Virginia Football (Courtesy: VirginiaSports.com)

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 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."