This was supposed to be a momentous home game for the Liberty football program. Virginia Tech, the commonwealth’s flagship football program, is playing at Williams Stadium for the first time. It is the first time one of the two Power Five conference programs in the state will play in Lynchburg. This was going to shine a spotlight on how far Liberty’s program has come in such a short period of time, one in which it has won three consecutive bowl games and been ranked in two of its four seasons at the Bowl Subdivision level. The moment is being overshadowed by something bigger than football. There will be solemn instances prior to Saturday’s kickoff as the flock of fans inside Williams Stadium reflect on the three University of Virginia football players whose lives were needlessly taken far too soon. The eyes and minds of many will be watching the Flames and Hokies play in Lynchburg, but their hearts will be in Charlottesville following the tragic events that rocked the state earlier this week.
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Virginia Tech at Liberty
- Where: Williams Stadium (25,000), Lynchburg
- When: Noon
- Streaming: ESPN+
- Records: Virginia Tech 2-8, 1-6 ACC. Liberty 8-2.
- Last time out: Virginia Tech lost at Duke 24-7. Liberty lost at UConn 36-33.
- Series: Tied 1-1
- Last meeting: Liberty defeated Virginia Tech 38-35 on Nov. 7, 2020, at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.
- Latest line: Liberty by 10
- Over/Under: 46.5
- Weather Underground forecast: 44 degrees, sunny, 0 percent chance of precipitation, 40 percent humidity, 7 mph winds SW, sunset at 5:05 p.m.
THE MATCHUP TO WATCH
Liberty front seven versus Virginia Tech offensive line: Whether or not you consider BYU a Power Five team yet (the Cougars are heading to the Big 12 Conference, so for this exercise, we’ll count them as one), it has been easy to see how well Liberty’s defensive front has performed against the offensive lines from those bigger programs. The Flames have played three games against P5 teams and recorded a total of 30 tackles for losses and nine sacks. Those are astronomical numbers for a Group of Five team that became a full-fledged FBS program four seasons ago. It isn’t uncommon to see Durrell Johnson in the backfield making plays, with his 18.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks ranking among the highest in the nation. Teams have made sure Dennis Osagiede, who had six sacks in the season’s first seven games, isn’t as disruptive up the middle. That, however, has opened up chances for Johnson, TreShaun Clark, Aakil Washington and others to get into the backfield and make plays. Twelve different players were in on the 14 TFLs against Arkansas, and Liberty has had at least five players record TFLs in every game this season. The onus will be on a Virginia Tech offensive line that has allowed 51 TFLs and 27 sacks to keep Grant Wells clean in the pocket. The Hokies have a veteran-laden left side of the line with redshirt senior Silas Dzansi, left guard Jesse Hanson and center Johnny Jordan. Right guard Kaden Moore and right tackle Parker Clements are both sophomores, so they have experience as well. The group has performed better over the past three weeks after Miami recorded 7.0 TFLs and six sacks. North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Duke combined for 15 TFLs and 11 sacks over the past three weeks, and the Hokies will need to be performing like they did to open the season. Take away the game against Boston College (10 TFLs and two sacks allowed), and Tech gave up 15 TFLs and four sacks before getting into the meat of ACC play.
KEEP AN EYE ON THESE FLAMES
Shedro Louis, running back: Louis traded in his football jersey for a black suit last week. He and his family members were in Immokalee, Florida, for the funeral of his father, Louiders. His father’s sudden death rocked Louis, who played against Arkansas days after the death, and then traveled home to be with his family. Louis is back and ready to take over in a running back room that is without Dae Dae Hunter (torn LCL) for the remainder of the season. Louis and T.J. Green give the Flames a formidable 1-2 punch that actually worked last season, particularly in the LendingTree Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan. Louis has developed into more than simply a change-of-pace back with his 390 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns this season. He can score in short-yardage situations, which now gives the Flames three bonafide options in the red zone (along with Green and Malik Caper). It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Flames have a package available for Louis to utilize his ability in open space.
- Mike Smith Jr., linebacker: There are still questions about the availability of Smith, who suffered a left-ankle injury in the second half against Arkansas and then was unable to play last weekend at UConn. The middle linebacker, who has been one of the most dependable players in the Flames’ front seven, will be needed in the first half as Ahmad Walker sits out. Smith has a knack for being around the ball (he has 55 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, four pass breakups, one interception, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries), and his ability to be around plays allows his teammates more freedom within the defense. The junior college transfer is vital to the defense’s success, and he will be needed if Liberty wants to replicate its performances against the three other Power Five teams.
KEEP AN EYE ON THESE HOKIES
Grant Wells, quarterback: The knock on Wells, the Marshall transfer, this season has been the number of interceptions he has thrown compared to his touchdown passes. Though, if you look closer at the numbers, he has been remarkably better since his Tech debut at Old Dominion. In that opener, he threw four interceptions and only one touchdown pass. In the nine games since, he has tossed eight touchdowns to five interceptions. Those numbers look better, but it hasn’t been enough to help the Hokies end a seven-game losing streak. Wells has needed to throw the ball frequently with Tech falling behind multiple scores. He has dropped back and thrown the ball at least 22 times in every game this season, including a season-high 47 times in a loss to Pittsburgh. Wells leads the team with six rushing touchdowns and 95 rushing attempts, so the Flames will need to be aware of his ability to extend plays with his feet.
- Dax Hollifield, linebacker: Hollifield has been the quintessential leader for this Tech defense, an unrelenting force at linebacker who will not quit during a dismal season. As long as the Mike linebacker is running around and making plays, his teammates will follow suit. The super senior has filled up the stat sheet this season with a team-best 76 tackles to go along with five tackles for a loss, six pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and one sack. He is responsible for getting his teammates in the front seven in the right places, and the Tech defense has been in the right place most of the time this season. The Hokies are surrendering less than 375 yards per game and holding teams to 3.9 yards per rush.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Who is Liberty’s quarterback?
Johnathan Bennett has started five straight games and six of the last seven contests, leading the Flames to a 5-1 mark with wins over BYU and Arkansas. The fourth-year sophomore was shaky in his first three starts but has turned the corner and been consistent over the past three games. However, there were missed opportunities in last week’s loss at UConn that led to Hugh Freeze wanting to find a “spark” at the position. That opened the door for Kaidon Salter and Charlie Brewer to battle for the starting job against the Hokies. Brewer is hoping to play against the team his older brother, Michael played for, and Salter could be in line for his third start.
2. Can the Flames establish the run?
Liberty has made it a priority to establish the run this season. The Flames have topped 150 rushing yards in eight games, reached the 200-yard mark four times (Southern Miss, Old Dominion, BYU and UConn), and totaled 21 rushing touchdowns. That aspect of the offense has been consistent with four different quarterbacks seeing time behind center. Shedro Louis and T.J. Green are expected to get the bulk of the carries against a Virginia Tech defense that has allowed six of its last seven opponents to rush for more than 100 yards. Pittsburgh racked up six rushing touchdowns on Oct. 8. Tech’s other opponents have combined for eight rushing touchdowns.
3. Will Liberty’s defense rebound?
UConn did something teams hadn’t been able to do against Liberty since the beginning of September — effectively run the football. The Huskies racked up 209 yards on the ground and converted on Liberty missing tackles to score the upset win. When the Flames have been successful, they have stopped the run and then either recorded sacks or interceptions on third down. Virginia Tech has failed to reach 100 rushing yards in half of their games, and the Hokies have abandoned the run when they have faced deficits. Tech has allowed 27 sacks and 51 tackles for losses, which could play into Liberty’s strength (34 sacks and 91 tackles for losses).
4. What will the linebacker rotation look like?
Ahmad Walker is out for the first half after being ejected for targeting in the third quarter of last week’s loss to UConn. Mike Smith Jr. is questionable after missing last week’s game with a left-ankle injury. That means Liberty will need to piece together the rotation for 30 minutes against the Hokies. Aakil Washington will definitely play, but he’ll shift between linebacker and defensive end depending on the type of personnel the Tech offense has on the field. Tyren Dupree, Jerome Jolly Jr. and even freshman Jordan Norwood could see extended playing time until the second half when Walker will receive most of the snaps.
5. Can emotions be controlled?
Liberty and Virginia Tech are playing less than a week after three University of Virginia football players were killed in a shooting. There will be plenty of emotional moments before the game honoring the memory of D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler, and that could carry over into the opening moments of the game. There aren’t many direct ties between the players on the Liberty and Virginia Tech rosters with Perry, Davis and Chandler, but the 69 players who were born and raised in the commonwealth (51 at Tech and 18 at Liberty) are affected the most because many of them grew up watching the Cavaliers play on Saturdays.
FLAMES’ KEYS TO THE GAME
Both Liberty and Virginia Tech have been outscored in the first quarter this season. The Flames have been outscored 59-41 in the opening 15 minutes, while the Hokies have been outscored 40-37. In fact, Liberty has only outscored its opponents in the first quarter three times (Akron, Gardner-Webb and Arkansas), and each instance was a 7-0 lead after the first quarter. The Hokies have gotten off to slow starts over the last seven games and been outscored 40-17 in that span. Liberty will need to get off to a fast start and avoid allowing Virginia Tech to build momentum. The Hokies have led only once after the first quarter during their seven-game losing streak.
Don’t give Tech a chance
The Hokies have lost by less than seven points three times during their seven-game losing streak. They have blown leads three times during that span. Virginia Tech has found ways to lose during the losing skid and been unable to piece together plays to win. The Hokies have been outscored 62-20 in the fourth quarter during the seven-game losing streak, and they have not scored in the fourth quarter in three straight games. If Liberty can start fast and race out to a dominating lead, that will prevent Tech a chance at sniffing a victory for the first time since Week 3 against Wofford.
Score off takeaways
Liberty finally did something last weekend it had only accomplished once prior during the season — score off every turnover its defense forced. The Flames scored 14 points off their two takeaways at UConn. It was the most points they had scored off turnovers this season, eclipsing the 10 points off five takeaways in the season opener at Southern Miss. Liberty had only scored 24 points off 15 takeaways between the Sept. 3 opener and last weekend’s contest in Connecticut. The only other time this season the Flames scored off each takeaway came Oct. 8 at UMass when they converted off the Minutemen’s lone turnover.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
When the Flames have the ball
Liberty has scored at least 21 points in every game this season, including 36 points at Wake Forest, 41 points against BYU and 21 points at Arkansas. The Flames are good for at least three touchdowns in every game. The Flames remain balanced in their offensive attack by averaging 192.5 rushing yards and 224.2 passing yards per game. Liberty has rushed for 658 yards over its past three games, which will serve it well against a Virginia Tech defense that is allowing only 137.2 rushing yards per contest.
When the Hokies have the ball
Virginia Tech has needed to throw the ball frequently this season because of deficits it has faced, which means the Hokies haven’t been able to establish the run. They have not reached the 100-yard mark in four of their 10 games this season and barely cracked triple digits last weekend at Duke. That has meant a lot of the responsibility has been on Grant Wells’ right shoulder (and his feet in many cases) to get the offense moving down the field. Liberty has recorded 14 interceptions this season, most of which have come when the defensive front is able to collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks to make bad decisions.
Virginia Tech’s William Ross opened the season by making eight straight field goals. He and John Love have not converted on their past three attempts, with misses coming from 36, 40 and 50 yards. (Love attempted the 50-yarder against Duke.) The Hokies, though, didn’t attempt a field goal against Miami or North Carolina State. Liberty’s Nick Brown, on the other hand, is starting to gain confidence. The freshman has made four straight field goals and converted on attempts from 34 and 38 yards against UConn.
Liberty wants to get the bad taste out of its mouth from the three-point loss at UConn. The Flames, even though they have already achieved their goal of becoming bowl eligible, want to take advantage of this opportunity and improve to 2-0 against in-state teams this season. Liberty defeated Old Dominion 38-24 on Oct. 1 and can assert its claim as the best team in the state (for this season) with a win over the Hokies. Also, with the way the future schedules are unfolding with the move to Conference USA, a Power Five team won’t return to Williams Stadium until 2030 when Virginia Tech comes back to town. This is a big game for the Flames. The Hokies, riding a seven-game losing streak, haven’t experienced much luck go their way since earlier this season in their last win against Wofford.
The final thought
There was going to be plenty of pomp and circumstance surrounding this matchup. Liberty was going to ensure there was just as much hype for Virginia Tech’s first visit to Williams Stadium as there was when BYU came to Lynchburg last month. The tenor changed quickly once the news of what unfolded in Charlottesville made its way to Lynchburg. The potential friendly trash talk turned to empathy. Foes quickly became friends. The two programs, both heading into drastically different directions this season, found a common theme to play for this weekend. Whether it is #HokiesForHoos coming out of Blacksburg, #VirginiaStrong being used in Lynchburg, or the common thread of #UnitedForTheHoos that will be on display Saturday, both communities found a rallying cry for those who are hurting on the UVa campus. I was at the Virginia Tech-East Carolina game in 2007, the first major sporting event on the Blacksburg campus since the April 16, 2007 shooting. There were cheers during the game, but a somber, quiet walk from Lane Stadium onto the campus once the game concluded. This has that type of feeling, as two college communities come together to honor three exceptional young men who will be watching from the heavens.
Prediction: Liberty 24, Virginia Tech 10