With a win in its November 29 regular season finale, Virginia football can accomplish two of the program’s major goals – winning the Coastal Division for the first time ever and defeating Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003. Needless to say there is a lot for UVA players to think about ahead of the 2019 Commonwealth Cup.
But the Hokies are next week. This week’s opponent is Liberty, and head coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked if his team’s focus on the Flames could be in question with so much riding on next week’s matchup with Tech. Mendenhall emphasized during his Monday press conference that overlooking Liberty (6-4) would be a mistake, indicating that his players have their full attention on the in-state rival from Lynchburg.
“I think it’s hard when there’s a game of that significance with the implications that [the Virginia Tech game] has, meaning that it is a rivalry game and it is potentially for the Coastal Division championship, until you watch Liberty on film, and that’s just a quick reality check,” Mendenhall said when asked about his team’s state of mind for the Liberty game. “Much like a year ago, when they could score at such an efficient and effective level, and I would say that’s continued to even an improved standard with an improved football team. Once that happens and you get into the Liberty work specifically, the rest, there’s no time for it, and it’s just interference because of the quality of opponent. So I think Hugh Freeze is doing a really nice job there.”
Don’t expect Liberty, which like UVA (7-3, 5-2 in the ACC) is coming off a bye week, to be intimidated when they take David A. Harrison III Field on Saturday at noon. The Flames were competitive with Virginia when the two met in Charlottesville last season. Virginia pulled away in the second half to capture a 45-24 win; however, Liberty trailed by only seven at halftime.
In their first season under head coach Hugh Freeze, the Flames are one game away from being bowl eligible. Top players who competed in last year’s contest return, including quarterback Stephen Calvert, running back Frankie Hickson (637 yards rushing, 5.3 YPC, 7 TDs while sharing carries with Joshua Mack, who has also rushed for over 600 yards and has 5 TDs), wide receiver Antonio Golden-Gandy (64 catches, 1,244 yards, 8 TDs) and defensive end Jessie Lemonier (65 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks).
Calvert struggled against Virginia last season, throwing three picks. He has thrown only three interceptions all season this year and currently leads all FBS quarterbacks in terms of pass attempts (281) without throwing an interception. The 6’2″, 180-pound senior has thrown for over 2,900 yards and 23 touchdowns. Hickson, who is six yards away from accumulating 2,500 yards rushing in his career, had 93 yards rushing and two touchdowns last season against the Hoos. These two, as well as Gandy-Golden, spearhead an offense that ranks no. 38 in the nation in total yards per game (443.2) and is no. 16 in the country in pass offense (300.4 pass yards per game).
“I was really impressed with their quarterback a year ago,” Mendenhall said, discussing Liberty’s passing attack. “Personnel at receiver is strong. Personnel at running back is strong. Now the scheme, which I thought was effective a year ago, is certainly every bit as effective, if not more now. So there’s the drop-back component, and then there’s the majority of the plays are run and play action, so run/pass options. So Liberty does a really nice job with that component of the game, so the runs are effective. The passes off the run are effective. Really, if forced to just be a drop-back team, that’s probably the least effective thing they do, but they’re really not in that situation very much.”
The Virginia offense has been on a roll since a loss to Louisville on October 26, racking up 38 points in a 7-point win at UNC and 33 points in a 5-point win over Georgia Tech. Quarterback Bryce Perkins has been excellent passing and rushing in those games, totaling 490 yards of offense against the Tar Heels and 364 yards against the Yellow Jackets. The senior captain will likely need to continue his stellar play if the Hoos want to finish out the season with two more wins, beginning with Liberty this week.
1. Virginia’s Defensive Front Seven Needs To Dominate
Liberty’s running backs rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns versus Virginia last season. Virginia was able to take away the pass, though, on the strength of a talented secondary that included Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall, among others.
Last year Virginia’s defensive line was rail thin and the Flames enjoyed success on the ground. This year is quite the opposite, with UVA’s line deep and talented and the defensive backfield ravaged by injuries. UVA’s linemen and linebackers will have to contain the run and pressure Calvert to help protect a susceptible Cavalier defensive backfield that has allowed a ton of big plays the past two games.
2. Stay Turnover Free
UVA picked off Calvert three times and forced a key turnover on downs in the third quarter to turn away the Flames last season. Liberty is plus-3 in turnover margin in 2019, having turned the ball over just 12 times this season, ranking no. 29 in the nation among FBS schools. Virginia remains minus-6 on the season; however, the Hoos have not surrendered a turnover in either of their past two games. Perkins has not thrown an interception in his last 100 attempts, good for sixth in the nation.
If the Hoos can put together another clean game on offense, I don’t see the Flames defense (no. 89 in the nation in total defense) having enough to slow Perkins and company down.
3. Continue Red Zone Success
The red zone woes of the Virginia offense have been non-existent the past two games, and the timing couldn’t be better. The defense lost another defensive back starter in safety Brenton Nelson prior to UNC. The Cavalier defense has just not been the same formidable force the past two games that it was earlier in the season, but the offense has stepped up. With two more potent offenses on the horizon, Perkins and company will need to continue to excel, including taking advantage of red zone opportunities.
The Hoos are a perfect 11-of-11 in the red zone the past two games. More importantly, eight of those scores have been touchdowns, which is huge in high scoring affairs. Liberty’s defense has surrendered a lot of yards but is stingy in the red zone, allowing scores 75% of the time. Nineteen of those scores have been touchdowns. Virginia will need to overcome Liberty’s bend-but-don’t-break ways with the type of success they enjoyed against the Heels and Jackets.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
Virginia returns from a bye week to close out the regular season with two home games at Scott Stadium. The first of those tests comes from Liberty in UVA’s final non-conference game of the regular season. The Hoos are heavily favored by oddsmakers.
There appear to be two big questions from Virginia’s side when it comes to the outcome. One, can a defense that’s caught the injury bug – especially in the secondary – hold up enough to keep the Flames from winning a shootout? The Cavaliers have struggled and given up big plays in recent games thanks to the personnel changes and execution issues. The difference in those games compared to this one though might be in the form of conference familiarity and pocket protection. In other words, ACC foes have been able to identify UVA’s pressure packages and keep the pocket fairly clean. Liberty will have to do the same if it’s going to win a high-scoring game.
Two, what about the weather? It’s supposed to be cold and rainy Saturday in Charlottesville. Cutting to the chase: how does that impact Bryce Perkins? He hasn’t played as well in these weather type of games the past two seasons compared to other situations, though he did complete some big throws late at Louisville in a downpour. The Hoos need Perkins to be his best dual threat self to keep putting up points in high-scoring contests.
I think Virginia answers both of those questions in the positive column this week. The players will be motivated to match last year’s win total and to get back in rhythm following the bye week. I know many are worried about the trap game vibe here, but I’m not.
VIRGINIA 42, LIBERTY 27. Season To Date: 7-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Despite a loss, the Flames played well against BYU on the road in their last game out. Liberty trailed by seven three different times in the second half against the Cougars – a touchdown brought the Flames to 31-24 with 6:35 in the fourth, but they would get no closer.
A quality outing last week, a quarterback playing well (Calvert had 303 yards and three TDs vs BYU), a questionable UVA pass defense, and last year’s performance in Scott Stadium all give Liberty reason to feel confident. However, Bronco Mendenhall and company have had an extra week to get the defensive backfield in order, and I think the bye week will prove beneficial in this regard. Bryce Perkins and the offense are looking good and should prove to be too much for the Flames. As for the team’s mindset, I would be surprised to see the Cavaliers looking ahead to the Hokies, especially after last season’s matchup.
I expect this to be a competitive game, but Virginia pulls away in the second half for the win.
VIRGINIA 38, LIBERTY 24. Season To Date: 6-4.