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BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers look to recover momentum against the Liberty Flames

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Virginia v Duke Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers’ three game winning streak was halted last week by Pitt. There were a number of reasons why Virginia lost that game, including just simply not playing well. But Pitt is a very physical team, and Virginia really did not react well to that.

Things get a bit easier this week. The Liberty Flames are in their first year as an FBS team, and aren’t even a full-fledged FBS team. They are “provisional” this year, and will be a “true” FBS team next year. Still, they are 4-4, which isn’t too bad.

Last week, they lost 62-59 in 3OT to UMass. The teams traded TDs in the first two overtime periods, meaning the score was tied 45-45 heading into OT—that’s the type of game they tend to play. Their previous game (before a bye week), they beat Idaho State 48-41.

Liberty’s best win this year was a 22-16 road win over a Troy team that beat a bad Nebraska team. UMass is an FCS team, so that certainly would rank as their worst loss.

The game takes place at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville and will kick off at 3PM. The game will air on RSN. Let’s look at some matchups.

Virginia on Offense

Virginia’s offense struggled last week against Pitt, and maybe it was in part due to weather, but things just never really got going. Pitt’s defense looked bad on paper, but they showed against Notre Dame that they were capable of playing better. It was also a veteran unit that had performed last year and had simply disappointed too many times this season.

Liberty, though, has one of the worst defenses in FBS and there’s little evidence that they’re capable of playing much better. They allow over 500 yards per game. They allow almost 40 points per game. And they haven’t exactly been playing Alabama.

They are yet another team running a nickel package as their base defense. They call the extra DB the “Spur”. That would make more sense if they were named the Cowboys or perhaps even the Cavaliers. But they are the Flames. The extra DB should be called “Spark” or something similar. C’mon, this isn’t rocket science.

The leading tackler for the Flames is MLB Solomon Ajayi. If that name looks familiar, it’s because his brother is on the Eagles. Ajayi is a transfer from Bakersfield College, a top Junior College program. He’s started at both LB spots, as has senior David King. King is listed as the backup at WLB to Brandon Tillmon. Tillmon is undersized for a LB at 6’0” 210.

The real strength of Liberty’s defense is in the defensive line. Junior DE Jessie Lemonier has nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses while senior Juwan Wells is third on the team in tackles. And senior DT Tolen Avery has four sacks and five tackles for losses.

The Flames secondary is a veteran unit, with three seniors, and a junior. But sophomore FS Isaac Steele is probably the best player of the group. He leads the team with 3 INTs to go along with 2.5 TFLs and a forced fumble. The two CBs are both undersized, which will give Virginia a big advantage on the outside.

Here’s a play from last week’s loss to UMass. Look how badly CB Bejour Wilson is beaten on this 89 yards TD pass. He’s several yards behind the receiver.

And here’s another play from last week. This time it’s Jeremy Peters being beaten badly. There’s really just no excuse for being that far off the WR on a simple go route.

The worst defense Virginia has played this year is Ohio, during which Virginia put up 552 yards and 49 points. Liberty’s defense is worse than Ohio’s. This is a chance for Virginia to put up some big numbers.

Virginia on Defense

It seems obvious that if a team has a poor defense and yet is 4-4, they must have a pretty good offense. That certainly seems to be the case here. Liberty’s offense ranks 49th nationally, not bad for a team in their first year of FBS. Even more impressive, they are 26th nationally in scoring.

The Flames seem to have a very good passing team. They are 18th in the nation in passing offense, averaging over 320 yards per game. Virginia ranks 92nd in the same category. But a deeper look shows that Liberty’s passing isn’t exactly efficient. That 18th rankings turns into a 72nd ranking in passing efficiency. Virginia’s 92nd turns into 51st. Liberty, in eight games, has thrown 330 passes this year. Virginia, in 9, has thrown 248.

As far as running the ball goes, Liberty is pretty much just bad. They are 106th nationally in rushing yards. They’ve run the ball 325 times at 3.8 yards per carry. That average ranks 102nd nationally.

As you may have heard, Virginia suffered a number of injuries in last week’s games. According to Coach Mendenhall, Juan Thornhill should be available. Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson might not be. (For what it’s worth, both Blount and Nelson are on the depth chart.) Furthermore, DE Mandy Alonso is out for the rest of the season. Alonso’s loss will be felt, in large part because of the lack of depth on the DL. We’ve seen the Hoos run plays with 2 or even 1 down lineman. Expect to see more of that. That could leave them susceptible to the running game, but that isn’t a huge concern against Liberty. And with Jordan Mack returning at ILB along with Zane Zandier and Rob Snyder, there are plenty of run stoppers around.

The losses in the secondary are a bigger issue. Blount is strong in the box. His loss will also mostly be felt in the run game. Nelson’s coverage skills in the slot are tougher to replace. De’Vante Cross has experience at CB, so he could possibly provide some of that, but we really don’t know what to expect from him at this point. The CB position is strong, with all of Bryce Hall, Tim Harris and Darrius Bratton available. Figure on seeing all three CBs on the field, as opposed to the usual three safeties. Hall and Harris are both very strong in run support and could move inside if needed.

Liberty’s passing attack is led by Stephen Calvert. Calvert threw for 3363 yards and 29 TDs last season. Both numbers led his FCS conference, as did his QB efficiency. He’s got 18 TDs, but 11 INTs. Here are two of them.

The first one is bad on many levels. It’s a terrible decision to make the throw. His feet aren’t set, and he throws it off his back foot. It’s well underthrown. It’s possible he didn’t see the 2nd defender underneath his target. The second is just Calvert trying to do more than he’s capable of doing. He simply doesn’t have the arm strength to make these throw off without setting his feet.

Calvert is a little undersized at QB, standing just 6’2” 180. He can run a little bit, but he doesn’t want to. Accounting for sacks, he had over 100 yards rushing last year, with a long of 23 yards. This year, he has barely run at all.

The primary WR for Calvert is Antonio Gandy-Golden. He’s the best (only?) NFL prospect on the team. He’s 6’4” 220, which is seriously an NFL WR body. He’s got decent speed, not great. He’s not a very strong route runner. But he’s got outstanding hands. Here’s an example.

This pass is also underthrown by Calvert. But Gandy-Golden picks up his QB by using his big body to get above the defender and uses his hands to secure the ball.

Gandy-Golden has 51 catches this year for 844 yards and 9 TDs. Last year he had 69 catches for 1066 yards and 10 TDs. He’s certainly improved. He’s just a junior, so he has another year to improve even more.

As mentioned, Liberty runs the ball almost as much as they throw it. There’s a few guys who get carries, but the lead back is junior Frankie Hickson. He’s rushed for 678 yards and 8 TDs, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He’s just 5’8” 180, so 5’10” 210 sophomore Peytton Pickett gets a lot of the short yardage and goalline work. Pickett has 8 TDs on just 78 carries. None of the RBs are a big part of the passing game.

Liberty’s OL is pretty big, and fairly experienced. But again, they haven’t faced a defense like Virginia’s. Against North Texas, the best defense they’ve played, they totaled just 344 yards and 7 points. Virginia’s defense is ranked above North Texas’. Again, due to the injuries, we’re likely going to see a lot of strange defensive formations from the Hoos. Eli Hanback could line up as the lone DL, or he could be joined by Aaron Faumui. Either way, Virginia will use a lot of different pass rush packages to confuse the Liberty OL and this unit isn’t particularly mobile. Chris Peace and Charles Snowden could have field days coming on various different blitzes. If Liberty were eligible, they’d be ranked 49th in sacks allowed, with 15 in 8 games. But North Texas had 3 of those sacks for 23 yards lost.

Yes, Liberty’s offense has some potential. And yes, Virginia’s defense may be down a few important pieces. But after last week, you can bet that Virginia’s defense will be ready to shut down Liberty.

Conclusion

For a team in their first year as an FBS program, Liberty is a solid team. They’ve had some good performances this year. But they really aren’t ready to face a solid ACC team. Even with a few guys missing, Virginia should have success in all three phases of the game.

At the top of the roster, there may not be a huge talent gap. But as you go down the roster, Virginia simply has a huge advantage. And Virginia isn’t particularly deep. That’s the difference between FCS teams and FBS teams. And as the season goes on, and players get hurt and fatigued, the lack of depth shows up more.

Prediction: Virginia 49, Liberty 21 (season record: 5-4)