Big Game Preview: UVA football faces Liberty

uva footballLiberty, be forewarned, can move the ball, putting up 477.4 yards and 36.9 points per game in 2018, heading into Saturday’s matchup with UVA at Scott Stadium.

Flip side: the Flames (4-4) can’t stop anybody, giving up 523.8 yards and 38.2 points per game this season, and it’s not like Liberty has played a murderer’s row schedule, with just three games against teams ranked in the top 100 of the ESPN Football Power Index.

Liberty has a 1-2 record in those games, the win coming over Troy (FPI: 84), 22-16 back on Oct. 13.

The losses: a 38-14 loss at Army (FPI: 55) on Sept. 8, and a 47-7 loss at home to North Texas (FPI: 59) on Sept. 22.

Focusing on those three games, the offensive numbers don’t look nearly as gawdy: the Flames scored 14.3 points and gained  367.3 yards per game in that set. And the defense: 33.7 points and 444.7 yards.

The win over Troy is a highlight for this squad. Troy is currently 7-2 overall and 5-0 in the Sun Belt, with a road win at Nebraska, which is, yes, bad, but, still Nebraska.

And in the Troy win, Liberty was, defensively, at its very best, holding the Trojans to 293 yards and forcing three turnovers.

So, for one Saturday, the Flames can be good on D, though, it must also be pointed out, last week, in a 62-59 triple-OT loss to UMass (FPI: 108), Liberty allowed, gulp, 777 yards.

Get to know: Liberty

On offense, there’s a lot to like. QB Stephen Calvert, a 6’2”, 180-pound junior, has thrown for 2,528 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 11 INTs. His completion rate is a bit low (55.9 percent), but he averages 316 yards passing per game.

His top target, Antonio Gandy-Golden, a 6’4”, 220-pounder, could play anywhere in the nation. Gandy-Golden, who was added to the 2018 Biletnikoff Award Watch List this week (disclosure: I was among those Biletnikoff voters clamoring for his name to be added), has 51 catches, 844 receiving yards and nine TDs, averaging 120.6 receiving yards per game.

Speed-burner D.J. Stubss (5’9”, 185) has 41 catches, and 6’1” redshirt senior B.J. Farrow has 27 catches, and averages 15.0 yards per touch.

The ground game ain’t bad, either, with 5’8”, 190-pound redshirt junior Frankie Hickson averaging 84.8 yards per game, and Hickson and backup Peytton Pickett (5’10”, 210) each have eight TDs on the ground.

The O line looks good in airports: averaging 6’3”, 302 pounds across its two-deep.

The D line: smallish, averaging 268.5 pounds across its two-deep, giving up 35 pounds to the Virginia offensive line, which suggests: run, run, run, then run some more, until Liberty sends a safety into the box to stop the run, at which point you pass.

You see why Liberty gets gashed, basically.

Quick hits: Virginia

Safeties Juan Thornhill and Joey Blount were listed on the two-deep for Liberty after leaving the loss to Pitt due to injuries. D lineman Mandy Alonso was not listed on the two-deep, but that was not a surprise, as coach Bronco Mendenhall had suggested as much in his Monday presser.

How this one plays out

In light of ODU beating Virginia Tech earlier this season, you don’t dare overlook anybody, even a 23.5-point underdog that the ESPN Football Power Index says has just a 7.9 percent chance of winning.

Like ODU, Liberty has a weapon, in the form of Gandy-Golden, that can be the basis for an offensive game plan that can be effective.

Basically, build everything around the 6’4’, 220-pound athletic freak who will be playing on Sundays in a year or two, target him as much as you can, force UVA to give him extra attention, then go to the other side of the field and take advantage of the extra space in running lanes.

I’d expect plenty of four-receiver sets with trips to one side, Gandy-Golden alone on the other side, forcing Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga to make some hard choices.

Having Thornhill and Blount back, thus, is key. Virginia is among the better teams in the ACC and nationally against the pass (ranked fifth in the ACC and 36th nationally in pass-efficiency defense in 2018).

Liberty will move the ball, at least some. Key for Virginia will be efficiency on offense, particularly on the ground. The Flames are giving up 238 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry. Long, clock-draining, will-killing drives against the overmatched Liberty D will limit the chances for the Flames to get much momentum going on offense.

Details

  • Liberty (4-4) at Virginia (6-3, 4-2), 3 p.m.
  • TV: RSN
  • Series: First meeting
  • RSN: Wes Durham, James Bates, Rebecca Kaple
  • Line: UVA -23.5
  • Prediction: UVA 41, Liberty 14

Preview by Chris Graham

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