Virginia Tech came from behind in the fourth quarter, scoring the eventual winning touchdown off a crucial Liberty turnover. The Hokies would outlast the Flames, 23-22, to improve to 3-8 on the season while Liberty has now dropped two straight to fall to 8-3.
“It’s the difference in the game,” said Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze of the turnovers. We’re driving to go up two scores, or at least kick a field goal and make it an 8 point game at that point. We turned it over. Obviously, that last one, that last one was tough on (Johnathan Bennett). We had a lineman totally whiff, guys are on him right away. I think the turnovers are certainly a huge factor in the outcome.”
After falling behind 17-7, Liberty reeled off 15 straight points and looked to be taking control of the game. The Flames gained possession of the ball with about a minute left in the third quarter and a 22-17 lead. With the drive starting on their own 10 yard line, Kaidon Salter connected with Demario Douglas for a 9-yard completion with a 15-yard penalty added onto it. Then, Shedro Louis burst free for a 21-yard gain as Liberty moved the ball to midfield entering the fourth quarter.
On the third play of the final period, Salter connected with Jerome Jackson for five yards to convert a third and four and moved to the Virginia Tech 34. On first down, Salter would try to scramble free, but the defense was able to corral him in the backfield, forcing him to lose the ball and it would be recovered by the Hokies at the 36.
The following play, Tech running back Keshawn King fumbled and it looked like Liberty’s Ahmad Walker would be able to recover it. He was not and Tech fell on it. It catapulted the Hokies drive, which ended in a Jalen Holston one-yard touchdown run, giving Tech the final margin of 23-22 after their two-point try was unsuccessful.
With 7:46 left on the clock to begin the Liberty drive, the Flames had plenty of time to try to string together a successful drive and take the lead. After the fumble, Salter remained in at quarterback. One completed pass and two quarterback runs picked up 21 yards to begin the drive. Shedro Louis followed with a two-yard run and a pass interference penalty moved the Flames into Tech territory at the 38.
The drive would stall there and Liberty faced a 4th and 12 at their own 40 with just under five minutes to play. Freeze elected to go for it and Salter’s pass would fall incomplete as the team turned it over on downs.
“No, we stopped them and got it back,” Freeze said of his decision to go for it. “The book said go, I said, ‘Are you sure? He said, yeah. You think about it, if you punt it he’s going to have to sky it into the wind or either kick it in the end zone and you sure don’t want to do that. Again, we stopped them and got it back. I don’t have any regrets on that one.”
Liberty would indeed get the ball back, forcing a Virginia Tech three and out, aided by a Javon Scruggs sack on third down. The Flames took over at their own 22-yard line with 3:19 left in the game. Freeze elected to go back to Johnathan Bennett and the Liberty quarterback would be sacked on the first two plays of the drive. He would lose a fumble on the second play, recovered by Virginia Tech. The Hokies would then be able to run the clock out and escape with a win.
“We were really struggling to block them up front,” Freeze said of his decision to go with Salter at times throughout the game. “They were good. They’ve been good all year on defense, look at their stats. I know it doesn’t show up in the win column but I thought it was the best defense we had played all year, up front. They put a lot of pressure on us. We were trying to find a spark with maybe somebody that could avoid maybe the first rusher and then create some explosive plays.”
The two teams, who have struggled to find consistency on offense at times this season, exchanged three and outs to open the game. It looked like Virginia Tech’s second drive was headed towards a similar fate until Juawan Treadwell’s safety blitz was avoided in the backfield by Hokie quarterback Grant Wells, who scampered for the first down. That sparked the Tech offense as Wells would find Nick Galo for a 35 yard pass play to move into the red zone. Facing a 3rd and 3, Wells was sacked at the 12 but a flag for too many men on the field for the Flames wiped it off. On the next play, the Hokies pushed it into the end zone from two yards out to take the early lead.
Liberty receiver Demario Douglas dropped what would have been a 25-yard pass completion on the first play of the Flames’ ensuing possession. The drive would end in a second straight three and out to open the game.
After the Hokies went three and out and were forced to punt for a second time in its opening three drives, the Flames finally picked up its first first down of the afternoon as Johnathan Bennett’s pass was completed to Noah Frith for a first down. A pass completion to Treon Sibley for 12 yards and a 29 yard run by Shedro Louis, Liberty had a first down in the red zone. On the next play, Bennett would scamper 15-yards untouched for the score to tie the game with 2:34 left in the opening quarter.
Brylan Green nearly picked off a pass that was deflected by Jay Hardy on 2nd and long. The ball fell incomplete and the Hokies stayed on the field. Taking advantage of early Liberty miscues, Tech converted a fake field goal to move into the red zone. A few plays later, the Hokies retook the lead with a 4th and 1 run from the 5, to lead 14-7 early in the second quarter.
After Liberty was forced to punt, a kick that went only 18 yards by Aidan Alves, the Hokies had a 32-yard completion to set them up in scoring range once again. After the Liberty defense stiffened in the red zone, Tech’s 23 yard field goal was good, extending their advantage to 17-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, Shedro Louis burst through the line and took it 97 yards for the touchdown. That was the first Liberty kick return for a score since Shedro Louis took one back 97 yards against Maine on Oct. 19, 2019.
The Flames’ defense would stiffen, with three straight tackles for loss, two of them by Durrell Johnson and two of them sacks, to force another Tech punt. Kaidon Salter would emerge as Liberty’s quarterback for the fifth offensive possession of the game. He would lead the team to one first down before being forced to punt. The Hokies would then go three and out and punt, as the Flames would take over at their own 20 yard line with 1:02 to play in the half and one timeout.
Salter would help pick up 36 yards on 7 plays to move into Tech territory. With 21 seconds left and having called their last timeout, Freeze went back to Johnathan Bennett who would complete a 16 yard pass to Noah Frith. This set up a 47 yard field goal that was made by Nick Brown, evening the score at 17 entering the locker room. After starting the season just 5 of 10 on field goals, Brown’s kick was his fifth straight make.
“We’ve got to get better play at quarterback and OLine,” said Freeze. “I think if we can stay balanced, we can run the ball decently. They started putting an extra guy in the box some. We’ve got to get more consistent play at quarterback. I’ve got to settle in, probably, to just one.”
Coming out of the halftime break, Liberty was able to move the ball to midfield before the drive stalled. Tech would call for a fair catch at the 10 on Alves’ punt. Durrell Johnson would break free on first down for his third tackle for loss of the afternoon. On the next play, Kendy Charles would sack Wells in the end zone for the safety as Liberty took its first lead of the game at 19-17, scoring 12 unanswered points.
The two teams would exchange punts and Freeze would then go back to Kaidon Salter at quarterback. He would show some escapability in the pocket and help move the team into the red zone. A third down sack would end the drive and lead to a 37 yard Nick Brown field goal to give Liberty a 22-17 lead late in the third quarter.
“I love our group,” Freeze stated. “They’ve shown an enormous amount of grit and fight and toughness. We are all hurting right now, disappointed in the way the season seems to be unfolding so far for the finish. We have another opportunity next week to get 9 wins in a season which I would take that most any season any where you’re at.”