Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall saw signs of progress everywhere on Saturday during the Cavaliers’ 55-27 victory over Liberty at Scott Stadium.
He saw progress from the offensive line, which gave quarterback Bryce Perkins ample time and paved the way for the Cavaliers to rush for a season-high 227 yards and score four rushing touchdowns.
“Our offense continues to grow, build and expand and become what we need them to be and want them to be. Our offensive line is the catalyst of that,” Mendenhall said. “Their continued growth and development has been targeted from Game 1 and has been trending upward the entire season.”
He saw progress from younger players, such as sophomore cornerback Heskin Smith, who had a team-high eight tackles and two pass breakups in his first career start, freshman wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks, who caught his first career touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and freshman kick returner Seneca Milledge, who tallied 130 kickoff return yards in his first action as a college player.
“It’s fun to see players be rewarded for all of their hard work and work hard enough in a game to provide that opportunity,” Mendenhall said. “It’s just good for everything. 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.”
But most importantly, Mendenhall saw the progress of the program as a whole.
Saturday’s victory over Liberty gave Virginia back-to-back eight win seasons for the first time since 2004 and marked the first time the Cavaliers have reached eight wins in the regular season since 2011.
“I’m really thankful for the work the staff and the players have put in,” Mendenhall said. “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 the eighth win and here we have it in the regular season with still one game to go.”
That one remaining game will provide the Cavaliers a chance to take another major step forward as a program. A win over rival Virginia Tech on Friday would give Virginia its first ACC Coastal Division championship in program history and its first nine-win season since 2007.
“With one game remaining in the regular season, the Coastal championship will be on the line and I think that reflects just growth and progress within the program,” Mendenhall said. “I think it reflects steady and unbroken growth within the progress in four years to this point.”
As anyone affiliated with the Virginia football program knows, beating Virginia Tech will be easier said than done. The Hokies have won the past 15 games in the series with the Cavaliers and enter Friday’s matchup on a three-game winning streak. During that winning streak, Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2 ACC) has outscored its opponents 109-17. Because of Virginia’s long losing streak in the rivalry, Mendenhall knows preparing for the Hokies presents a set of unique challenges.
“It’s a delicate balance, because the reality is the University of Virginia has not had much success in that game. Managing that could certainly be a contributing factor,” Mendenhall said. “However, we talking now about an opponent that has qualified for, I think, 27 or 28 straight bowl games and has made a commitment to football that has lasted for a long time.”
Mendenhall and his staff have put a major emphasis on ending the losing streak to the Hokies. Outside of the Virginia locker room at Scott Stadium, there are two words painted on the wall in all caps for every player and coach who enter to see.
For the Cavaliers, that is the next step in what has been a steady upward climb for the program since Mendenhall’s arrival.
And it’s a big one.
If Virginia makes that step, a date with defending national champion Clemson in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte awaits.
“Every goal that we had set at the beginning of the season is still available,” Mendenhall said. “There aren’t many of the 130 Division I football programs that have every goal that they set available going into that last week of the regular season.”