Virginia Tech vs. Liberty
- Saturday, Nov. 7, Noon, ACC Network
- Virginia Tech vs. Liberty Betting Line: Virginia Tech -14.5
- Virginia Tech-Liberty roster cards: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Blacksburg weather: Click here
Virginia Tech hosts Liberty Saturday in the second-ever meeting between the two teams. Justin Fuente opened his Virginia Tech coaching career with a 36-13 win over the Flames back in 2016.
Liberty comes into Saturday’s game with a perfect 6-0 record, and the Flames are ranked No. 25 in the country. They also opened as 16.5-point underdogs (it’s down to 14.5), and it’s rare for a ranked team to be such a big underdog against an unranked opponent.
A quick glance at Liberty’s schedule shows why Las Vegas isn’t giving them much respect this week. Liberty has victories over Western Kentucky, FIU, North Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe, Syracuse and Southern Miss. Here are the records for those teams this season…
Western Kentucky: 2-5
North Alabama: 0-2 (FCS program who has played only two games)
Southern Miss: 1-5
Overall record: 4-28
The Flames beat Western Kentucky by six and squeaked by FIU by two points. They slapped around Louisiana-Monroe with relative ease, and didn’t have much trouble with Syracuse and Southern Miss. Still, when you look at the overall record of those opponents, it’s not too surprising that the Flames opened up as 16.5-point underdogs. Virginia Tech is easily the best team they’ve faced thus far, and it’s not close.
On the other hand, just because they haven’t played anybody doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of their plaudits, or that they aren’t good. It simply means that we don’t know yet. We’ll have a much better idea after this weekend’s game.
What we do know is that the Flames have some very dangerous athletes on the offensive side of the ball, and that’s where we’ll begin this week’s preview.
Malik Willis and the Liberty Offense
If the name Malik Willis sounds familiar to you, it should. Willis (6-1, 215, r-Jr.) was originally a member of the 2017 recruiting class, and he committed to Virginia Tech as an athlete. Cornerback was his likely position. He then had a great senior season, Auburn promised him a chance at quarterback, and he promptly decommitted from the Hokies and signed with the Tigers.
Willis ran for 309 yards and averaged 11 yards per carry in two years at Auburn, but the coaching staff never gave him the keys to the passing game. He decided to transfer in search of an opportunity to start, and he ended up in Lynchburg.
He appears to have made a good decision. For the season, he is completing 67.2% of his passes for 1,122 yards, with nine touchdowns and just one interception. He’s continued his dominant running as well, racking up 495 rushing yards and averaging seven yards per carry while rushing for a further six touchdowns. Overall, in 17 college football games, Willis has 99 carries for 804 yards, which works out to 8.1 yards per carry.
Willis is a legitimate threat, particularly on the ground, and we know that because he also had success in a running role for Auburn. Outside of a couple of plays, the Hokies did a good job keeping Louisville’s Malik Cunningham in the pocket last week, and they need to be able to do the same thing this week against Willis.
Willis is helped by a three-man running back rotation featuring the following players…
- Joshua Mack (5-11, 200, r-Sr.): 68 carries, 376 yards, 5.5 ypc, 2 TD
- Shedro Louis (5-8, 175, So.): 45 carries, 374 yards, 8.3 ypc, 3 TD
- Paytton Pickett (5-8, 220, r-Sr.): 62 carries, 308 yards, 5.0 ypc, 3 TD
Pickett is a bigger, bulkier back. Louis is the small speed threat, with a 75-yard touchdown run to his credit this year. Meanwhile, Mack sort of splits the difference. Collectively, combined with Willis, this group represents a very dangerous running threat.
For the season, the Flames have thrown the ball 161 times and run it 269 (including sacks and scrambles). Liberty leans heavily on the running game like Virginia Tech, though perhaps not quite as extreme as the Hokies. Still, stopping their running game is key, because it makes it much easier for them to throw the football when they have success on the ground.
You can get an idea of the effectiveness of their running game (and their team in general) by watching the highlights of their win over Southern Miss, which I’ve embedded below.
It’s not anything too different schematically, but Willis is a top-notch athlete, and he appears to have a strong arm. The Hokies have to slow down the run and put the Liberty offense in long-yardage situations.
You probably noticed that Liberty appeared to have good speed at the wide receiver positions, but they lacked size. Here are those players and their numbers…
- DJ Stubbs (5-9, 185, Sr.): 27 catches, 375 yards, 13.9 ypr, 3 TD
- Demario Douglas (5-8, 165, r-Fr.): 17 catches, 183 yards, 10.8 ypr, 2 TD
- Kevin Shaa (5-11, 165, r-Sr.): 15 catches, 188 yards, 12.5 ypr, 2 TD
Those Liberty playmakers don’t have much bulk, but they are good athletes who have made big plays this season.
The Liberty offensive line lacks size at a couple of spots on the interior, but they have experience.
- LT Tristain Shultz (6-4, 305, Sr.)
- LG Damian Bounds (6-1, 290, r-Sr.)
- C Thomas Sargeant (6-1, 295, r-Sr.)
- RG Brendan Schlittler (6-5, 315, r-So.)
- RT Cooper McCaw (6-5, 305, r-Jr.)
Bounds and Sargeant are undersized next to each other, though Sargeant is the most experienced player on this Liberty offense. Virginia Tech’s defensive tackles need to win this battle.
Finally, here are Liberty’s offensive rankings so far this season…
Scoring: No. 16
Rushing: No. 6
Passing: No. 66
Total: No. 17
The Liberty Defense
The Flames rank No. 10 nationally in total defense, limiting their opponents to 294 yards per game. However, here is where their opponents rank in total offense, out of 103 ranked teams.
Western Kentucky: No. 96
Florida International: No. 97
Louisiana-Monroe: No. 92
Syracuse: No. 99
Southern Miss: No. 66
(North Alabama isn’t included because they are FCS).
Southern Miss is the only offense Liberty has played with a pulse, and the Eagles scored 35 points on the Flames. Statistically this is a good defense, but they’ll be facing a Virginia Tech offense that is No. 16 in total offense, No. 4 in rushing offense, No. 3 in yards per carry, and No. 18 in scoring offense, and the Hokies have done all of that against Power 5 competition. This will easily be the biggest challenge of the season thus far for the Liberty defense.
One thing that stands out is how big the Flames are on the interior at defensive tackle…
- Elijah James (6-5, 300, Sr.)
- Ralfs Rusins (6-6, 325, r-Sr.)
Rusins is from Riga, Latvia, and he plays the nose guard position for Liberty. He’s backed up by fellow behemoth Henry Chibueze (6-3, 350, r-So.). Brock Hoffman and the interior of the Virginia Tech offensive line will be going head-to-head with a lot of beef on Saturday.
Virginia Tech’s offensive specialty has been the outside zone, and Liberty isn’t nearly as big on the edges or in the secondary. The Liberty defensive ends range from 6-1 to 6-3 in height and from 235 to 245 in weight. No linebacker is taller than 6-1, and none of them weigh more than 230. In the secondary, no starting defensive back weighs more than 195, and four of the five starters come in at 185 or below. That’s probably not a group of defensive backs that would fare well against Khalil Herbert in the open field, so I like the Hokies’ chances to run the football despite Liberty’s size on the interior.
Bandit (DE/OLB) Durrell Johnson (6-4, 235, Jr.) has been the top playmaker on defense with eight tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. TreShaun Clark (6-1, 235, So.) has added six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Overall, the Flames rank No. 30 nationally in tackles for loss and No. 16 in sacks. Putting opponents in long-yardage situations has helped the Liberty defense quite a bit this season. Likewise, the Tech offense hasn’t exactly thrived in third-and-long situations this year, so it will be important for the Hokies to avoid those situations on Saturday.
Liberty kicker Alex Barbir is 7-of-11 on the season, but he’s only 2-of-6 from beyond 30 yards. If this game somehow turns into a battle of field goal attempts, then Virginia Tech will have a major advantage with the steady and reliable Brian Johnson.
Aidan Alves has done a good job with his punts this year. Six of his 18 punts have gone inside the opponent’s 20, while six have been fair caught. Opponents have only returned three of his punts for a total of 16 yards. The Hokies are trying desperately to get Tayvion Robinson loose, but opponents are doing a good job angling their punts towards the sideline, which make successful returns more difficult. I would look for the Flames to employ a similar strategy.
Liberty has shown a weakness on kickoffs, having allowed one return for a touchdown this season. In fact, only eight of Barbir’s 43 kickoffs have gone for a touchback, which has given opponents ample opportunities for returns. The Flames may have recently moved up to the FBS level, but they still have FCS talent at some positions, and that certainly includes their kicker.
Virginia Tech has more program depth and better overall players, so the special teams edge should go to the Hokies if they have their heads on straight.
Some professional baseball players make a career out of getting moved back and forth between Triple-A and the majors. They really aren’t good enough to play in the majors, but they are probably too good for Triple-A, too. Some people (myself included) refer to those types of guys as Quadruple-A players. There is no such level in baseball, but if there were, that’s where those guys would be playing. Bull Durham’s Crash Davis is the best fictional example I can think of.
Liberty was an FCS program, and now they are an FBS program. When I look at them, I see a Quadruple-A baseball player. They have some good attributes that can get them in The Show, but enough weaknesses that it’s hard for them to compete once they get there. Liberty can certainly trounce the bad FBS teams, but their weaknesses are likely to be exposed when they face a good curveball for the first time, or in Virginia Tech’s case, Power 5 talent.
The Flames are sort of what you would expect from a program that has recently moved up to FBS with an SEC head coach. They’ve got a number of transfers, a quarterback that used to play in the SEC, some tiny little guys at some of the skill positions, a couple of 6-1 offensive linemen who are under 300 pounds, a Latvian monster at nose guard, lots of speed, solid running backs, and a kicker that lacks leg strength. In other worse, there’s plenty of good, but there will also be some guys on the field for the Flames on Saturday who probably shouldn’t be competing against Power 5 programs.
I think Liberty is well-coached, and I wish the Hokies had signed Malik Willis. They’ll make some plays on Saturday, and probably enough to make you sweat for part of the game. But ultimately, I don’t think they match up across the board. Tech is averaging 37 points per game against ACC opposition, and even if Willis does have a big day, I just don’t think they’ll be able to match Tech in points.
Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 44, Liberty 24
Will Stewart’s Take: That’s an impressive Liberty-vs-Southern Miss highlight film that Chris embedded. Offensively, the Flames have some guys who have speed and can make plays. The question is, can they do it against better competition? I’m guessing they can.
Chris didn’t include the total defense rankings of Liberty’s opponents so far this year. That’s a crude metric, yes, but here it is, minus North Alabama:
- Western Kentucky: No. 45
- FIU: No. 87
- Louisiana-Monroe: No. 75
- Syracuse: No. 93
- Southern Miss: No. 100
That’s not a murderer’s row of defenses, but Virginia Tech isn’t very good either, clocking in at No. 88. Liberty has averaged 38 points per game. Interesting stat: their lowest scoring output of the season was against FCS North Alabama (28 points); take that out, and Liberty is averaging 40 points per game against FBS competition, compared to Virginia Tech’s 37.7.
Until we see otherwise, I respect Liberty’s offense, especially their running game, and they can make plays in the passing game. This is going to be another challenge for the Virginia Tech defense as it gets its legs under it.
As for the Liberty defense, don’t be fooled by their No. 12 ranking in FBS total defense. Two of Liberty’s FBS opponents have registered their highest yards-per-play output of the season against the Flames, and a third has registered its second-highest yards-per-play output. I don’t want to dismiss the Liberty defense outright, but it’s hard to say they’re any good, given the offenses they’ve faced.
Hugh Freeze has a reputation as a good offensive coach, so I think they’ll have some success against the Hokies defense. Maybe a lot of success. I also think Virginia Tech will play well on offense, and the Hokies have a potentially big edge on special teams, though special teams can be a crap shoot in a game.
It’s important that the Virginia Tech team that showed up for Louisville shows up against Liberty, and not the team that played against Wake Forest. After watching the Wake and Louisville games, and seeing how critical a good start was against both teams, I’m going to beat that drum over and over the rest of the season: show up ready to play, and Virginia Tech will be fine.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 41, Liberty 30
What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Liberty football game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (73%, 799 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (22%, 240 Votes)
- Liberty Wins by 1-10 (3%, 38 Votes)
- Liberty Wins by 11+ (2%, 22 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,099
Last Week’s Virginia-Tech Louisville Prediction Poll Results
Game Result: Virginia Tech 42, Louisville 35
What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Louisville football game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (16%, 139 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (45%, 400 Votes)
- Louisville Wins by 1-10 (26%, 235 Votes)
- Louisville Wins by 11+ (13%, 116 Votes)
Total Voters: 890