The Virginia football team is 7-3 overall with a 5-2 record conference record that has put them in the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal Division. While the Cavaliers control their own destiny there and have the ability to send themselves to the ACC Championship Game for the first time in program history, they still have a game of football to play that has no impact on the league standings. The Hoos play host to the Liberty Flames this Saturday afternoon in a late season non-conference matchup.
In their first season under new coach Hugh Freeze (yes, the one from Ole Miss), the Flames bring a 6-4 record into Scott Stadium. This is only Liberty’s second season as a member of the FBS, and they went 6-6 last year in their inaugural season. That 6-6 record last year included a 45-24 defeat in Charlottesville, but the Flames did not simply roll over in this game as they trailed by just seven points at the half.
Both teams come into this game following a bye the previous week. While the Flames fell in a tough one to BYU in Provo, 31-24, in their last game, the Hoos beat Georgia Tech 33-28 at home in their most recent action. Liberty looks for a season-defining win against Virginia, while the Cavaliers attempt to remain grounded and not get caught looking ahead to one of the most crucial games for the program in recent memory.
1. Can the Hoos stay focused?
While the Cavaliers are undefeated at home this year, they have had some slow starts or performances that were a bit underwhelming. The games that come to mind here are ODU and Georgia Tech. With both, the Hoos came in as heavy favorites but were unable to establish dominance over either opponent. A common theme from these games was a late arriving, smaller crowd. ODU was a night kickoff, but fans may have underestimated the quality of opponent based on reputation. Georgia Tech was a 12:30 kickoff, so as most followers of the program now, this did no favors with attendance or fan arrival time.
This week combines both an opponent lacking prestige and an early noon kickoff. Plus, the forecast is for a cold and rainy afternoon. With these factors in mind, it can be expected that the crowd will be lacking in volume and energy. The Hoos feed off of playing in front of a raucous crowd at home, but they may not receive this come Saturday. They most likely will have to provide their own juice in what is considered a textbook trap game.
With this type of crowd, an out of conference matchup with an unranked opponent, and an upcoming meeting with their rival, focus could be lacking for the Cavaliers. While it may have no impact on the Coastal race, they cannot afford to stumble this late in the season as it could tremendously hurt their eventual bowl selection spot.
2. Can a battered Cavalier defense slow down a high-powered Flame offense?
A common topic of discussion in these previews in the second half of the season has come from a Virginia defense that has constantly had to deal with injuries. While the Hoos have stepped up in big moments, such as the fourth quarter at UNC, they still have yet to find an overall rhythm or ability to stop opposing offenses consistently once a string of injuries hit. They gave up 517 total yards of offense to UNC and then 372 yards and 28 points to Georgia Tech, who was shut out and held to only 134 yards in its next game.
The task for this Cavalier defense does not get any easier this week.
Liberty has been averaging nearly 450 yards of total offense per game this season with games where they have scored 63, 62, and 49 points. The way the Flames are putting up these numbers is also worrisome for the Hoos as it involves a passing game that has been dominant. Virginia’s secondary has been the biggest question mark for the second half of the season so there is no doubt Liberty will look to continue to air it out and put pressure on the hosts all afternoon long.
3. Will a season trend be broken?
Statistically speaking, Virginia wins at home and Liberty loses on the road. So far this season, the Cavaliers are undefeated playing at Scott Stadium with a 5-0 record. On the other hand, the Flames are 2-3 in games played outside of Lynchburg. A breaking of these trends would shock the college football world as the Hoos come in as 17-point favorites. A loss would leave a glaring blemish on what has the potential to be a season to remember for the Virginia program.
Three Opponents to Watch
1. Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert, Quarterback, #12
The 6’2”, 180-pound senior is the straw that stirs this Flame offense. Calvert has been the guy for Liberty since his freshman season when he played in every game and started the final seven. While he tore up defenses in their first season of FBS football last season throwing for over 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns, he struggled with not turning the ball over as he threw 18 interceptions too.
This season, his production has not slowed down, while he has dramatically limited his mistakes. Calvert has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Currently, he is ninth in the FBS in total passing yards this season. He will look to take advantage of the depleted Cavalier secondary.
2. Antonio Gandy-Golden, Wide Receiver, #11
The 6’4”, 220-pound senior has been Calvert’s favorite target all season long. The two have been an electric duo as Gandy-Golden has 64 catches for over 1,200 yards this season and eight touchdowns. His 1,244 receiving yards this season place him second in the FBS in this category and have NFL scouts talking about his ability to play at the next level. Gandy-Golden will be testing this Virginia defense all day long Saturday. If the Flames pull off this upset, it will most likely be primarily the result of this Calvert to Gandy-Golden connection.
3. Ceneca Espinoza Jr., Safety, #6
The 6’1”, 215-pound redshirt junior has been a do it all type of guy for the Liberty defense this season. He cleans up mistakes made by other members of the defense as he has 38 tackles, has the ability to get to and pressure the quarterback with his 1.5 sacks, and can make plays on the ball through his two interceptions, one fumble forced, and one fumble recovery. The Flames will lean on him heavily as they attempt to slow down a Virginia offense that seems to have found its rhythm.
Three Hoos to Watch
1. Bryce Perkins, Quarterback, #3
It did not take reading this preview to know the Hoos succeed as Perkins does. When he turns the ball over with interceptions or fumbles, Virginia struggles and typically loses. When he sets school records, they win crucial conference games on the road. The good news for Cavalier fans is it appears Perkins is hitting his stride at the perfect time.
In his last two games, he has posted over 600 passing yards with four touchdowns and also rushed for over 200 yards and two touchdowns. This ability and willingness to do it through the air and on the ground has kept defenses on their toes and guessing. Arguably more important than these numbers is the fact that Perkins did not throw an interception in either of these games.
2. Terrell Jana, Wide Receiver, #13
One of the most pleasant surprises this season for Virginia has been the play of the junior wide receiver. Coming into the year, Jana had only 13 career receptions for under 200 yards in his two seasons. His production has sky rocketed as he has over 50 catches for nearly 600 yards already in 2019. In the last three games, Jana has really established himself as a go-target for Perkins. He has 28 receptions for 329 yards in these games, including an astounding 13 catches for 146 yards against UNC.
3. De’Vante Cross, Defensive back, #15
As mentioned above, the Cavalier secondary has been questioned more than any other position group since Bryce Hall’s injury, which was followed by the loss of Brenton Nelson as well. The guy who has been asked to do the most is this converted quarterback to safety to cornerback. Cross has been picked on by opposing quarterbacks from his first play at cornerback against Miami filling in for Hall. His job will not get any easier this week as he will most likely be matched up with Gandy-Golden at times. As he goes up against an NFL prospect catching balls thrown by another potential NFL prospect, the Hoos are not asking for Cross to win this matchup. They just need him to limit big plays and keep the action in front of him.
Remember When …
The Cavaliers used a big second half to propel themselves to a 45-24 victory over the Flames last season at Scott Stadium in the first ever meeting between the two programs.