Liberty and Virginia are set to square off on the gridiron for the first time. The Flames are looking for their first ever win against an ACC opponent, having dropped the previous 5 opportunities.
Virginia, at 6-3, is bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004 and 2005. The Cavaliers, led by 3rd year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, are hoping to get back on track after a loss last Friday night against Pitt.
“They’ve got a great name and a great brand,” Liberty head coach Turner Gill said of the Cavaliers. “For us to even have a chance to play them, that’s a great thing in itself and we thank God for that. It’s going to be an advantage in a lot of ways, whether we win or lose. (We can tell) the recruits we’re playing Virginia. You want to play against the best. You want to know where you’re at. So, I think it’s advantageous no matter what the results are going to be. It’s advantageous in recruiting, both nationally and locally.”
The Flames and the Wahoos both sport impressive wide receivers as Antonio Gandy-Golden and Olamide Zaccheaus are both on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List. AGG was just added this week after his impressive 9 reception, 205 yard and 2 touchdown performance at UMass. Zaccheaus became Virginia’s leading career reception leader earlier this season.
JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins has immediately come in and made his presence felt at quarterback for Virginia. He transferred in from Arizona Western Community College where he spent the 2017 season. He began his career at Arizona State where he was redshirted in 2015 and missed all of 2016 with an injury.
“QB starts it all,” Gill said of Perkins. “Very talented, dual threat guy. Can run, can throw, makes a lot of things happen with his legs as he’s making throws and he can also take off running. He breaks a lot of tackles. Breaks a lot of tackles within the pocket, breaks a lot of tackles outside of the pocket. He’s a very good player. Each and every game you see him become more comfortable and more confident.”
In 9 games this season, Perkins has rushed for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s also passed for 1,828 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He’s improved greatly during the season in his ability to throw, whether from within the pocket or by extending plays with his legs and making throws on the run.
“They have a very good passing game,” Liberty defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly said. “A lot of people talk about Perkins’ running ability, but he has improved each week throwing the football. In (receivers) Zaccheaus and (Tavares) Kelly, you’ve got some guys there that once they catch the ball, they do a good job in space.”
Zaccheaus leads the Hoos with 60 receptions, but 13 different players have at least 1 catch on the season.
Jordan Ellis leads UVA’s rushing attack, averaging 81 yards rushing per game. He also has 7 touchdowns. Perkins has more rush attempts on the season than Ellis does though.
As well all know, the Flames have struggled on defense, to put it lightly. Giving up nearly 800 yards against UMass and over 1,400 yards in the last 2 ball games won’t get it done. While the defense continues to struggle, the defensive line has been improving in its ability to make plays in opponents’ backfields. Jessie Lemonier has led this surge with 6 sacks in his last 2 games. On the season, the JUCO transfer has 12.5 tackles for loss and 9 sacks. His sack total ranks 4th in the nation.
But it’s the secondary that needs to see the most improvement.
“Our back-end, we need to get some more depth,” Wimberly said. “We’ve got some young men playing 80+ snaps when you count special teams, and you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to play the best 11 men. We’ve got to create some depth that we know is going to help us win football games, and we know that’s going to take recruiting to continue to build.”
On defense, Virginia sports one of the top units in the country. They rank 18th in scoring defense, holding opponents to 19.2 points per game, and 23rd in total defense, allowing 326 yards of offense per game. Led by defensive coordinator Nick Howell, the Cavs are balanced against the run and pass, ranking 35th in passing yards allowed and 29th in rushing defense.
The defense is led by safety Juan Thornhill, a 3rd team all-ACC selection as a junior in 2017. He leads the team with 56 tackles and 4 interceptions. The Altavista High School product also has 3 tackles for loss on the year. Linebacker Zane Zandier is tied with Thornhill for the team lead with 56 tackles, and linebacker Chris Peace leads the team with 10 tackles for loss and 6 sacks.
Cornerback Bryce Hall, a projected first round NFL draft pick, will likely get the matchup with AGG most of the afternoon. The 6’1″, 200 pound junior has 16 pass breakups and 2 interceptions to go along with his 43 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks this season.
“They are designed to stop spread offenses,” Liberty offensive coordinator Joe Dailey said of the UVA defense. “When you look at the guys they have, their corners are long, their back 3 safeties are really, really long, physical and active. They’re box 7 has great length, great speed, great strength. They’re built for today’s offenses. So you have to figure out a way to put those guys in situations where they’re not as comfortable.”
The last time the Flames faced an ACC opponent was the 2016 season opener at Virginia Tech. In that game, Liberty led 13-10 until late in the 2nd quarter before the Hokies scored 26 unanswered points to win 36-13. The biggest difference maker in that game was the 4 turnovers the Flames’ committed. That’s something Coach Gill says must be corrected for his team to have success Saturday.
“Turnovers. We have to have 0, definitely can’t have more than 1. Create turnovers and protect the ball is the biggest thing.”
With Virginia being a 23.5 point favorite against the Flames, Coach Gill’s team will has its work cut out in order to pull off the upset.
“We’re going to respect all of our opponents, but we’re not going to fear anybody,” Gill said giving reference to the team’s 2018 motto of Respect All Fear None. “(We) don’t want to get caught up into the logo, don’t want to get caught up in they’re better at this, they’re better at that. They have some good personnel. We will show the guys’ strengths and the guys’ weakness. That’s how we do it every week no matter who the opponent is. You don’t want to make it any bigger than it is, you don’t want to make it any less than what it is. You’re playing a football game. You’re playing 11 people and you have to do your job. There might be 1 guy a little better over here, but that’s our job as coaches to make up for that.”
Virginia 37, Liberty 24
The Flames have the talent on the offensive side of the ball to challenge Virginia’s defense, provided Liberty plays to its potential with few to no mistakes. In the end, the Cavaliers will simply have too much for the Flames and will pick up their 7th win of the season.