The Liberty football team opened the 2016 football season, falling to the Virginia Tech Hokies 36-13. The Flames took a lead early in the 2nd quarter that they held until 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half. From there, the Hokies scored 26 straight points.

Game balls

Jerod Evans: Virginia Tech’s quarterback was making his first career start and he performed well. He completed 20-of-32 passes for 221 yards and 4 touchdowns and rushed for 46 yards.

Isaiah Ford: The all-ACC wide receiver finished the game with 11 receptions for 117 yards and 1 touchdown.

Juwan Wells: Liberty’s defensive end finished the game tied with a team-high 9 tackles. He also had a strip sack which the Flames recovered at the 10 yard line and converted into 6 points a few plays later.

Ranking the top plays from the game

  1. Not one play, but an entire drive. On the Flames’ 3rd offensive possession, Liberty was called for 6 penalties – 5 false starts and 1 delay of game. 4 of the false starts were committed by redshirt-freshman right tackle Sam Isaacson.
  2. Liberty’s fumbled snap on its 2nd possession of the game. After the Hokies missed a 52-yard field goal, the Flames’ offense needed to get something going to establish some momentum. Instead, redshirt-freshman center Dontae Duff’s snap was over Masha’s head and recovered by Tech on the 24 hard line. Two plays later and the Flames find themselves down 7-0.
  3. With a 10-6 lead, and driving deep into Liberty territory, the Hokies were on the verge of putting some distance between themselves and the Flames early in the 2nd half. Then, Chris Turner forced a fumble that was recovered by Alpha Jalloh who scooped up the ball and returned it 71 yards to give the Flames their only lead of the game at 13-10.
  4. Liberty’s offense was inept, having just 7 yards of total offense on their first 5 drives. Juwan Wells forced his way into Tech’s backfield to sack Jerod Evans. In doing so, he knocked the ball free and Tolen Avery fell on it at the 10 yard line. Just a few plays later, the Flames were able to get on the scoreboard.
  5. Trailing 24-13 and forcing the Hokies to punt on their first possession of the 2nd half, Damian King made a poor decision to field a punt at the 2 yard line. Tech’s coverage team caused King to run backwards as he was tackled in the end zone. It pushed the score to 26-13, and after Tech scored on their ensuing possession, the game was over.

What it means

It’s the first game of the season against an ACC opponent that was favored by 32 points. In the end, it doesn’t really mean much, but it was our first look at the new offense and several new players at key positions. This game leaves much to be desired out of the offense who finished with 160 total offensive yards, the first time the Flames were held under 200 total yards under Coach Gill. 8 false starts from an inexperienced offensive line must be shored up.

The defense proved that it can compete at a high level. The defensive line caused havoc numerous times for the Hokies, finishing with 10 quarterback hurries. Chris Turner went toe-to-toe with an all-ACC receiver in Isaiah Ford and held his own despite Ford’s gaudy numbers.

Coach Gill has mentioned all off-season how glad he was to have new special teams coordinator Scott Downing. Well, the first game wasn’t the unit’s best effort. A missed extra point and a bad decision to field a punt at the 2 yard line were the most notable blunders.

It felt like the team wasn’t prepared to play in this game. Was it because of the crowd and Virginia Tech’s skill? We’ll find out soon enough.

Looking ahead

Liberty has their home opener next Saturday against non-scholarship Jacksonville. The Dolphins were off this week as they will make their season debut against the Flames. We will learn much more about the 2016 version of the Liberty football team in this game.

Jacksonville is led by first-year head coach Ian Shields. JU was 9-2 in 2015 with a win over Delaware and their 2 losses coming against Drake and Dayton.

By the numbers

13 | The Flames had 13 penalties for 75 yards, 8 of which were false starts.

21 | Twenty-one of the fifty-four Flames that played against the Hokies, were competing in their first collegiate game. This included true freshmen Brandon Tillmon, DeCarlo Hamilton, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Alex Probert, Jimmy Faulks, Stephen Calvert, Spencer Jones, Mitchell Lewis, and Ethan Crawford.

9/25 | Liberty quarterback Stephon Masha finished the game 9/25 passing for 70 yards. He also had 2 interceptions.

70/160 | LU had just 70 passing yards and 160 total offensive yards, the lowest marks under head coach Turner Gill.

2/15 | Liberty was just 2/15 on 3rd down conversions.

62,234 | The attendance Saturday was the largest crowd the Flames have ever played in front of.

They said it

Flames head coach Turner Gill on Buckshot Calvert playing one series and if there’s a quarterback controversy:

“No, that was our plan. Our plan was to give him one series and look into it. I always said that I would possibly play him for one series as we move through the season. It’s the same thing from last year. We have to get him some reps and do what’s best for our football team in case something was to happen to Stephon or something of that nature. That way he has played in some games. We already planned to play him, we just didn’t have a set time of when we were going to do it. We decided to do it in the second half. No, there’s no quarterback controversy.”

Cornerback Chris Turner on facing all-ACC wide receiver Isaiah Ford:

“Isaiah is a very good player. The coaches trusted me to go out there and give him a competitive game, and that’s what I did. He’s a good player, I just got to make plays.”

Safety Alpha Jalloh on the scoop and score touchdown return:

“It felt great. It feels good getting in the end zone to help provide points.”

Defensive end Juwan Wells on what the defense takes away from their performance against VT:

“It’s a learning process for us going against a Power 5 school and playing at a high level. FCS schools, I don’t think they’ll play at that level.”

Quarterback Stephon Masha on his confidence following the game:

“Definitely still high. I can’t let this one game determine a whole season. We just got to live and learn from it. It’s on the offense, I hate seeing the defense out there for that long. I put it on the offense. We had way too many penalties today to put it on the defense today. We just have to come out and execute better and keep the defense out of bad spots like that.”

Linebacker Dexter Robbins on if the defense got frustrated when the offense wasn’t performing:

“We don’t get frustrated. It’s our job to get out there, and it’s our job to hold them out of the end zone. No matter how good or how bad the offense is doing. We don’t blame nobody, we don’t point the finger at nobody. It’s just our job. It doesn’t matter if it’s a quick 3 & out for the offense, or they drive the whole field and score. We didn’t get frustrated, we just went out there and said hey, we’re going to shut them down, they’re not going to get in the end zone. If they’re going to get in the end zone, they’re going to have to fight as hard as they can to get there.”

Robbins on the leadership style of this year’s team:

“We kept a positive mindset even into the 4th quarter we stayed positive. We didn’t turn on each other. That’s something that Stephon and I have gotten the team to really focus on is not turning on each other, get mad, and throw fits or make scenes on the sideline. Yes, there’s some frustration that occurs every once in a while, but overall, as a whole, the team remained positive no matter what. Last year, we were a young team. Our leadership was a little different than it is now. I feel like when things weren’t going our way last year, we would lose focus, we would get off kilter. Masha and I talked about this all off-season, we’ve got to get the team to focus on being a team and not an individual, and that’s what we put in to play today.”