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The Big Preview: Virginia Can’t Look Past Liberty

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Back in September, a 2-0 Virginia Cavaliers team faced an 0-2 ODU team that isn’t very good. After 20 minutes of game play, ODU led 17-0. Virginia managed to fight back in the second half to win 28-17, but it didn’t inspire much confidence. Many people, including Coach Mendenhall seemed to think this was due to Virginia looking ahead to Notre Dame the following week.

This week, Virginia faces a Liberty Flames team that isn’t nearly as bad as ODU. But, Virginia once again has a prime opponent the following week and need to be wary of looking ahead once again. Hopefully, the first one taught them a lesson and they’re focused for this game.

This is especially important since Liberty is coming off a bye week with nothing to focus on other than Virginia for two weeks. This is the Flames’ first season as a full FBS member, and they’re 6-4. That’s pretty good, but because two of those wins are over FCS teams, they aren’t yet bowl eligible. Their only good win is over Buffalo (ranked 79th on Football Outsiders F+ rankings). Their three other FBS wins came against New Mexico (#120), New Mexico State (#124), and UMass (#130). They also lost to Rutgers (118th). Strangely, they have a rematch against New Mexico State coming up next weekend.

The Flames are in their first year under head coach Hugh Freeze. Freeze’s last job was at Ole Miss. Maybe you remember. Interesting hire for a school founded by a pastor.

Virginia on Defense

In the Hoos’ last game, Georgia Tech’s James Graham was 15/22 for 229 yards and 2 TDs. He’s a redshirt freshman who has been in and out of the lineup. A week later, Graham faced Virginia Tech and was 7/14 for 43 yards and two INTs. Liberty’s Stephen Calvert has thrown for nearly 3000 yards already, with 23 TDs and just 3 INTs. Considering what Graham did against Virginia’s battered secondary, Virginia should be wary of what Calvert could do this week.

Then again, Graham is also a running threat, which likely changed the way Virginia planned for him. Calvert is not a runner, and in fact has rushed for minus-176 yards in his career. This means defensive coordinator Nick Howell and company can use the LBs in pass coverage more confidently. They can also pass rush more aggressively without fear that the QB will break contain and pick up big yards with his legs.

Prior to all of the injuries suffered by the secondary, Virginia played a lot of nickel and dime defenses. Although we have seen some over the past two weeks, it has been less than early in the season. The truth is, the LB or DL that is being replaced by an extra DB is likely a better football player right now.

Keeping both ILBs (Zane Zandier and Jordan Mack) in coverage over the middle of the field is likely more valuable than having freshman Tenyeh Dixon in a similar role. Expect to see four LBs on the field at almost all times this week. The LBs are the best players on this defense right now, and in particular are the best pass rushers. Getting pressure on Calvert is very important.

The loss of Bryce Hall is really felt in this game. Liberty has one of the most prolific WRs in the nation. Antonio Gandy-Golden is second in the nation in receiving with 1244 yards. He has 64 catches and 8 TDs. He’s broken 100 yards six times in ten games. It’s safe to say he would get a large dose of Hall if the senior CB were healthy. Instead, Virginia will shade coverages towards him, perhaps giving Nick Grant some single coverage on the other side. The rest of the WR corps isn’t nearly as dangerous. Then again, good coverage on Gandy-Golden doesn’t almost matter.

Both of these plays are good coverage. Both are complete passes. The first is simply an amazing one-handed grab by Gandy-Golden. The second is simply an amazing throw by Calvert. This is what Liberty can do offensively.

Liberty can also run the ball, with a pair of RBs splitting carries. Senior Frankie Hickson leads the team with 121 carries, but junior Joshua Mack is right behind him with 106. They are both over 600 yards on the season.

They’ll run out of shotgun or pistol formation on most plays. They’ll run a lot of draws. The RB gets to pick a hole and “run to daylight.”

The threat of the pass is so strong, Rutger’s DL gets penetration into the backfield, but they’re too aggressive and go right past the RB. Virginia’s LBs are better than Rutgers’, but the need to get pressure on Calvert can cause mistakes.

The Hoos are going to give up points. Calvert is too good, Gandy-Golden is too good and Hugh Freeze is too good. Virginia should be wary of trick plays. The Flames have nothing to lose, and have already successfully run a WR pass against Rutgers this year. What Virginia needs is a few big plays of their own. The Flames are 88th in sacks allowed and 88th in fumbles lost. A turnover is a great way to get this high-powered offense off the field.

Virginia on Offense

On the year, Virginia averages just 368 yards per game (95th nationally). Over the past two weeks though, they’ve averaged 465 yards which would rank in the top 20 nationally. A part of the difference is the health of QB Bryce Perkins. But another big part has been the development of the OL. We saw a similar improvement last year, which was one reason for the optimism heading into this season. The struggles earlier this year were frustrating, but the unit two starters and there was a lot of shuffling of the line early this year. We can question whether the shuffling led to more problems than leaving them alone. Would success have come sooner had the line been left alone? Perhaps we must trust the coaching staff.

Neither UNC nor GT are particularly impressive defensively. However, both are better than the Flames, at least statistically. UNC ranks 73rd, GT ranked 79th and Liberty ranks 89th. If Virginia, and particularly Perkins, play the way they are capable, they should put up some numbers this week.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve begun to see the impact of speed and quickness on the Virginia offense. Tavares Kelly possesses truly elite speed, sprinter’s speed. He played last year, but was not effective. This year, it took him some time to make an impact. But his speed is something defenses (and special teams) must account for. Liberty’s defense struggles with speed.

Perkins has struggled with the deep ball this year, but if Kelly can get that far behind his man, Perkins doesn’t have to be perfect. It could be Kelly or it could be Joe Reed, but Virginia has to take some shots downfield. Liberty’s secondary can be beaten deep, and Virginia has the WRs to do it. Perkins has to be just good enough to allow his WRs to make plays.

This is basically a blown coverage and should’ve been a TD. Kelly has to wait for the ball, which gives the defender time to catch up.

Yes, big plays will be important. Especially since Virginia hasn’t had many of them this year. But also important will be holding the football. Virginia ranks 11th nationally in time of possession. Liberty ranks 112th. Last week against Georgia Tech, Virginia held the ball for over 35 minutes. Late in the game, we saw a tired defense struggle to contain Bryce Perkins’ running ability. He picked up a couple of big first downs with his legs late in the game.

Perkins is hit two yards shy of the first down, but fights his way past the sticks. If the game is close late, Virginia’s ability to control the clock will be important.

Liberty’s defense ranks 89th in total defense. But they’re actually 28th in sacks (oddly enough with 28 sacks). They’re also 28th in interceptions. They will try to put pressure on Perkins. That begins with the DEs led by Jessie Lemonier. Three DEs have 12.5 of those 28 sacks, and Lemonier has 8.5 of his own. Jessie’s brother Corey played at Auburn and faced Virginia in the 2011 Peach Bowl. Getting an extra guy on Lemonier in passing situations will be key. Lemonier isn’t just a pass rusher though. He’s second on the team in tackles, impressive for a D-lineman. He’ll be a key read on almost every play, and especially on zone-read plays.

The Flames play a 4-2-5 base defense, with an extra safety, who often plays in the box. They’re led in tackles by MLB Solomon Ajayi, who’s brother is a RB on the Eagles. Ajayi and Lemonier are far and away the best players on this defense. Most of the rest of the defense is undersized, though not the DTs. A base-nickel defense is often going to struggle against the run. Liberty is no different. They allow 4.7 yards per rush, which includes all those sacks. Virginia hasn’t had a ton of success on the ground this year, other than Perkins. Is this the week the RBs get going? Maybe, though it’s more likely Perkins goes for his third straight 100 yard rushing game.

In Virginia’s wins this year, Perkins averages 19 carries and 67 yards rushing. In their losses, he averages 15 rushes for 6 yards (that’s skewed by -29 yards rushing against Notre Dame, but it’s still bad). Virginia needs Perkins running the ball to be successful.

The Flames aren’t a whole lot better against the pass. Yes, they are 69th in passing defense, but they are 94th in pass efficiency defense. If they are able to get pressure on the QB, they’ll be successful. If not, they won’t. Virginia’s OL has been much better the past couple of games. Other than Lemonier, the Liberty pass rush isn’t scary. The Hoos will keep a RB to help on Lemonier, which should give Perkins enough time to throw.

There is no reason why Virginia shouldn’t be successful offensively. The Flames have allowed over 430 yards per game on the road (which includes just 240 for a terrible UMass offense). The Virginia offense has been on fire the past two weeks. That’s a good combination for the Hoos.

Conclusion

It seems like this game could turn into a shootout. With their big play offense, it seems like Liberty is better suited to a shootout. They average almost 33 points per game. Virginia, though, averages 31 points per game. Both teams can put points on the board.

Even banged up, Virginia’s defense is better than Liberty’s. And their ability to hold the ball means Liberty’s defense will spend too much time on the field. That could be the difference.

Prediction: Virginia 45, Liberty 31