Game Preview: Virginia Tech Faces Strong Liberty Defense

Head coach Hugh Freeze of Liberty
Hugh Freeze is 34-13 at Liberty. (Liberty athletics)

Virginia Tech (2-8, 1-6) will make the short trip on 460 to Lynchburg to face the Liberty Flames (8-2) on Saturday at noon. Hugh Freeze’s team is coming off just its second loss of the season and will be excited for the opportunity to play a big in-state program at home. Meanwhile, the Hokies have lost seven games in a row for the first time since 1951.

At the beginning of the season, we thought the early schedule looked promising before giving way to a very difficult mid-season stretch. Then the Hokies would see a light at the end of the tunnel when their November schedule softened up. Well, Virginia Tech is now 0-2 in November, and that light at the end of the tunnel is starting to resemble an oncoming train.

Hugh Freeze has done a very good job at Liberty. He’s now in his fourth season as head coach, and he’s 34-13 overall. This is perhaps his best coaching job since he was hired. He lost quarterback Malik Willis to the NFL but still seems poised to improve the team’s overall record from last season when they went 8-5.

The Flames are coming off a tough 36-33 loss to a UConn team that was determined to get themselves bowl eligible, while their other loss came by one point to Wake Forest. Liberty beat Arkansas 21-19 on the road after jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first half and also blew out BYU at home, 41-14. This is a football team that is capable of some big wins over talented teams, but at the same time, it’s capable of nearly losing to a 5-5 FCS team in Gardner-Webb (Liberty won that game 21-20 and was outgained).

Overall, this is a football team that seems to do just enough to win, though there are a few blowouts mixed in…

Four of Liberty’s wins have come by one score, and even its game against ODU was tied 24-24 late in the third quarter, while the Akron game was a 2-point margin with just under five minutes remaining. Outside of wins over BYU and UMass, all of the wins were there for the taking by the opponent in the fourth quarter.

This is a winnable game for Virginia Tech, but only if the Hokies do a ton of things differently than they’ve been doing all season.

The Liberty Offense By The Numbers

The Flames have been mediocre on the offensive side of the ball for most of this season, and this is why the Hokies have an outside shot to win.

Here are some Liberty numbers to remember…

FEI Offensive: No. 77
Available Yards: No. 61
Total Offense: No. 47
Rushing Offense: No. 32
Passing Offense: No. 79
Pass Eff. Defense: No. 85
Scoring Offense: No. 52

The Flames aren’t particularly efficient throwing the football, but they do have a solid rushing team. They’ve had some good performances at times this year, such as…

  • BYU: 547 yards, 41 points
  • Arkansas: 315 yards, 21 points (good considering it was an SEC team on the road)
  • Wake Forest: 431 yards, 36 points

They’ve also had a some rough performances…

  • Akron: 309 yards, 21 points
  • Gardner-Webb: 315 yards, 21 points

The Flames actually had to come back from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Gardner-Webb.

Liberty ranks No. 126 in the country with 14 interceptions thrown this year and No. 72 in fumbles lost with seven. Overall, the Flames are one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to turning the football over. Their 21 total turnovers ranks No. 123 nationally out of 131 teams.

What Liberty does well is generate chunk yardage. It ranks No. 28 in gains of 20+ yards, No. 12 in gains of 30+ yards, and No. 18 in gains of 40+ yards. The Flames will do nothing offensively for long stretches and then gash you out of nowhere.

Overall, this isn’t a particularly talented offense, but I believe the coaching staff gets the most out of the players. Considering the unit has started three different quarterbacks this season, its performances have been pretty good. Speaking of which…

Johnathan Bennett Liberty Quarterback
Johnathan Bennett

The Liberty Quarterback Situation

Liberty began the season with Charlie Brewer (6-1, 210, r-Sr.) as the starting quarterback. If you recognize the last name, it’s because he’s the younger brother of former Virginia Tech starter Michael Brewer. The younger Brewer is a good player who has had an injury plagued career. After completing 63.4% of his passes for 68 touchdowns and 31 interceptions in stints at Baylor and Utah, Brewer was looking for a fresh start, and he found it in Lynchburg.

Unfortunately, the same old issues popped up, and he was injured in the season opener against Southern Miss. In fact, he was only on the field long enough to throw four passes before fracturing his right hand. He returned against BYU and ran the ball two times, but he hasn’t played since.

Since then, the Flames have used two different quarterbacks…

  • Johnathan Bennett (6-6, 220, r-Jr.): 115-of-196 (58.7%), 1,364 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs
  • Kaidon Salter (6-1, 190, r-Fr.): 51-of-94 (54.3%), 784 yards, 6 INTs, 5 INTs

It’s been nearly all Bennett in recent weeks because Salter was also injured and had to undergo groin surgery. Salter made a brief return last week against UConn and attempted three passes, but he had a critical fumble that was returned for a touchdown, and that ended up being the difference in the game. Salter is a better runner than Bennett, but he’s rusty and had a key turnover, and it remains to be seen how much the Flames will use him against Virginia Tech.

Bennett should start against the Hokies, though I do believe that Brewer is by far the best quarterback of the three. However, he’s rusty, and Hugh Freeze hasn’t shown any indication over the last two weeks that he’s planning on going back to his original starter.

Bennett is a bit limited. His completion percentage is low by modern standards, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio isn’t ideal, either. However, he doesn’t have a great group of wideouts to help him out. The Flames have one player with 57 receptions, and nobody else has more than 19.

Demario Douglas Liberty football
Demario Douglas

The Liberty Receivers

The best player on the field on Saturday may be the smallest. I’m talking about Liberty wide receiver Demario Douglas (5-8, 170, r-So.). He has 57 catches for 830 yards (14.6 avg) with six touchdowns on the season. The Florida native was unranked coming out of high school and picked the Flames over listed offers from Florida Atlantic, UAB and Georgia State.

Davis spends most of his time in the slot, as you would expect from a player his size. 444 of his 533 offensive snaps have come out of the slot this season, and he will occasionally be used in the running game as well. He has four carries for 100 yards and a touchdown in 2022. He has been far and away the best Liberty wide receiver, and though the other players have more size, they haven’t been as effective.

  • Noah Frith (6-4, 200, r-Jr.): 19 catches, 355 yards, 18.7 avg, 1 TD
  • CJ Yarbrough (6-3, 195, r-Jr.): 13 catches, 200 yards, 15.4 avg, 2 TDs
  • Caleb Snead (6-3, 205, r-Jr.): 10 catches, 124 yards, 12.4 avg, 0 TD

That’s not particularly good production through 10 regular season games. If the Hokies can manage to limit Douglas, it could be difficult for the Flames to move the football.

The Liberty Offensive Line

Here’s how the Flames will line up from left to right…

— LT Naasir Watkins (6-6, 320, r-Sr.): A transfer from Kentucky, Watkins starts at left tackle. He’s been a solid performer for the Flames this season.

— LG Jonathan Graham (6-5, 325, r-Jr.): Graham has been a decent player. He’s better in pass protection than he is in the running game.

— C Cam Reddy (6-2, 305, r-Sr.): Reddy transferred in from Colorado State, where he was an Honorable Mention All-Mountain West player.

— RG Brendan Schlittler (6-5, 315, r-Jr.): Like most of the rest of the offensive line, Schlittler is better in pass protection than run blocking.

— RT X’Zauvea Gadlin (6-4, 315, r-Sr.): Gadlin is a transfer from Tulsa, and he’s been dominant in pass protection his season for the Flames. However, his run blocking grade is a tick below average.

Liberty is somewhat similar to Duke in that Hugh Freeze wanted more talent and depth on the offensive line, so he went out and signed three new players in the transfer portal and they all became starters. They aren’t dominant, outside of Gadlin in pass protection, but they are solid, and their presence has been a boost to the numbers as well, so the Flames are able to get a decent rotation going at tackle, guard and center.

Shedro Louis Liberty football
Shedro Louis

The Liberty Running Backs

Tailback Dae Dae Hunter (5-10, 190, r-So.) is a transfer from Hawaii who has put together a solid season for the Flames….

  • Rushing: 130 carries, 854 yards, 6.6 ypc, 8 TDs
  • Receiving: 18 catches, 149 yards, 8.3 avg, 1 TD

Unfortunately for the Flames, he suffered a season-ending injury against Arkansas. His replacement against UConn was TJ Green (5-11, 205, r-Sr.), a transfer from Utah. He hasn’t had much playing time this season, but he did rush for 119 yards and a touchdown last week.

Liberty’s usual backup is Shedro Louis (5-8, 170, Jr.), who had to miss last week’s game to attend his father’s funeral. He’s rushed for 390 yards and seven touchdowns this year, though his 4.1 yards per carry average is far from dominant. It’s tough for him to be a dominant rusher for his size, though he has been much more durable during his career than Virginia Tech’s smallish backs such as Keshawn King and Malachi Thomas.

The Liberty Defense

Though they are a bit undersized at some positions, the Liberty defense has been the strength of their team this year. The unit has kept their team in games, which has allowed for some clutch fourth quarter performances and some close wins. The Flames aren’t dominant in any of these following metrics, but they are solid across the board…

Rushing: No. 43
Passing: No. 38
Pass Eff.: No. 13
Total: No. 30
Scoring: No. 41
FEI: No. 28
Available Yards: No. 16

However, one area where they’ve thrived is in turnovers forced. The Flames have forced 22 turnovers this season, which is tied for fourth in the country with Illinois, Georgia Tech and Coastal Carolina. That ability has made up for their own offense’s tendency to turn the ball over. The Flames are +1 in turnover margin this season, which is middle of the pack, and that number would be a lot worse without their defense’s ability to take the ball away from the opposition.

Durrell Johnson Liberty football
Durrell Johnson (11)

The Flames will line up Bandit Durrell Johnson (6-3, 240, Sr.) on the edge, and it’s fair to view him as either a defensive end or an outside linebacker. Either way, the JUCO transfer from Baltimore has had a terrific three seasons in Lynchburg. He’s got 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks on the season, and 35 TFL and 15.5 sacks for his career. I’m not sure about Johnson’s projections in the NFL, but the Steelers have scouted him as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme.

Former Virginia Tech commit Stephen Sings V (6-3, 255, r-So.) is his backup, and he’s got 3.5 sacks on the season, so the Flames have gotten a lot of production from the Bandit position.

He has help up front from defensive tackle Kendy Charles (6-0, 275, r-So.). Charles was 246 pounds coming out of high school, a 2-star recruit and the No. 391 player in the state of Florida by 247. He’s got seven tackles for loss and three sacks on the season, and he was a big part of their upset win over Arkansas with 1.5 TFL and 0.5 sacks that game.

(Note: PFF credits Charles with seven sacks on the season, including two against Arkansas, and sometimes their statistics are more accurate because they have trained people watching the replay, whereas stats accumulated by schools are done in real time in games.)

The other defensive tackle, Dennis Osagiede (5-11, 290, r-Sr.), is no slouch in his own right. He played two seasons at UMass, then another two at Stephen F. Austin, and is now finishing his career with Liberty. He’s listed with 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks on the season.

Charles and Osagiede have played so well that they’ve beaten out two former Auburn defensive tackles for the starting spots. Jay Hardy (6-3, 320, r-Fr.) and Dre Butler (6-5, 300, Sr.) are both solid players, but they haven’t equaled the production of their less-heralded teammates.

The other defensive end is TreShaun Clark (6-1, 250, Jr.), with 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks on the season. He hasn’t been quite as dominant as the other guys, and he’ll rotate out a little more, but he’s still been a solid player.

JUCO transfer Mike Smith, Jr. (6-1, 225, r-Jr.) has been a very nice addition to the Liberty defense. He’s been a very strong player, particularly against the run, and has 55 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss on the season. Will linebacker Ahmad Walker (5-11, 215, So.) is undersized, but leads the team in tackles with 58. He’s also got 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks on the season.

In the secondary, the top Liberty playmaker is strong safety Robert Rahimi (6-1, 190, Jr.) with five interceptions on the season. Cornerbacks Daijahn Anthony (6-0, 205, r-Jr.), Chris Megginson (6-0, 190, Jr.) and Kobe Singleton (6-0, 180, r-So.) have been consistent players. Anthony and Singleton transferred from Shepherd University and South Utah, respectively, while Megginson is a local Heritage High School product.

Opposing quarterbacks are having difficulty being consistent against those three corners…

  • Anthony: 11-of-27 (40.7%) for 121 yards
  • Megginson: 28-of-48 (58.3%) for 345 yards
  • Singleton: 31-of-39 (53.8%) for 279 yards

Overall, this is a defense that gets a lot of penetration (No. 1 nationally in TFL per game) to force sacks (No. 5 in sacks per game) and turnovers. Opponents are completing just 56.4% of their passes against the Flames, and the defense has more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes allowed (12). This doesn’t appear as if it’s going to be a breakout game for the Virginia Tech offense.

Special Teams

Liberty placekicker Nick Brown (6-4, 155, r-Fr.) is 9-of-15 on the season with a long of 49 yards. Meanwhile, the Hokies plan to use true freshman John Love for the second straight week after he missed his only attempt a week ago.

Special teams appears to be a wash on the whole. Liberty doesn’t do much in the return game, and they don’t allow much in the return game, either. Only nine punts have been returned against the Flames this season, so the chances of Tucker Holloway breaking one this week don’t appear to be strong.

Before we get to our picks, what do you think?

What's your prediction for the 2022 Virginia Tech-Liberty game?

  • Flames Win by 11+ (47%, 458 Votes)
  • Flames Win by 1-10 (29%, 285 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (18%, 177 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (5%, 52 Votes)

Total Voters: 972

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Liberty-Virginia Tech Final Thoughts

Here’s a key line from the first section of this preview…

“Four of Liberty’s wins have come by one score, and even their game against ODU was tied 24-24 late in the third quarter, while the Akron game was a 2-point game with just under five minutes remaining. Outside of wins over BYU and UMass, all of their wins were there for the taking by the opponent in the fourth quarter.”

Chances are, this is going to be a close game in the fourth quarter. That’s where the Flames have found a way to win this year. On the other side of it, Virginia Tech has four close games that were decided in the fourth quarter, and the Hokies found a way to lose all of them.

I believe that Virginia Tech has a more physically talented quarterback. I believe the Hokies have a better outside receiver than anybody Liberty has, while the Flames’ slot guy would start for Tech. On the offensive line, I don’t see a great deal of difference in pure talent level, but I think Liberty’s linemen are put in a better position to succeed. Tech’s tight ends have been more productive, while Liberty’s have mostly struggled. The Flames would have the edge at running back, but how good will they be without Dae Dae Hunter?

Defensively, though they are undersized and filled with players who weren’t highly recruited, the Flames are pretty much better than the Hokies across the board. And you can’t tell me that it’s completely a talent issue, either. Here are the rankings of Liberty’s starting defenders coming out of high school…

DE TreShaun Clark: 0-star, unranked in Florida
DT Kendy Charles: 2-star, No. 391 in Florida
DT Dennis Osagiede: 2-star, No. 335 in Texas
DE Durrell Johnson: 2-star JUCO recruit, only Liberty offered
LB Mike Smith, Jr.: 3-star JUCO recruit, No. 6 JUCO LB
LB Ahmad Walker: 2-star, No. 200 in Georgia
NK Quinton Reese: 2-star, No. 241 in Georgia
CB Chris Megginson: 0-star, unranked in Virginia
CB Kobe Singleton: 3-star, No. 55 player in Washington
SS Robert Rahimi: 0-star, unranked in Texas
FS Javon Scruggs: 0-star, unranked in Virginia

That’s excellent evaluation skills and also excellent coaching by the Liberty staff.

I think Virginia Tech’s defense will play well enough to win against the undermanned Liberty offense. However, it’s hard to see the Hokie offense managing to score many points against a Liberty defense that has played good football this season. I do think it will be a good game, but the Flames have shown the ability to win in the fourth quarter this year, while Tech has only shown the ability to blow late leads.

Chris’s Prediction: Liberty 24, Virginia Tech 17

Will Stewart’s Take: The Liberty football program was created in 1973. The Flames were an NAIA team back then, transitioning to Division II in 1981, FCS in 1988, and FBS in 2018. Liberty is a university on a mission when it comes to football.

The last time they had a losing record was in 2005, under former coach Ken Karcher (1-10). Here are their last three head coaches:

  • 2006-2011: Danny Rocco (47-20, .701)
  • 2012-2018: Turner Gill (47-35, .573)
  • 2019-present: Hugh Freeze (34-13, .723)

Since the start of the 2020 season – a season in which the Flames beat Virginia Tech 38-35 in Blacksburg:

  • Liberty is 26-8. Virginia Tech is 13-21.
  • Liberty has spent 10 weeks in the AP Poll (8 weeks in 2020, 2 weeks in 2022). Virginia Tech has spent seven weeks in the AP Poll (5 weeks in 2020, 2 in 2021).
  • Liberty has gone to two bowl games, winning them both (following a bowl win in 2019). Virginia Tech has gone to one bowl game, losing it 54-10. Liberty will go to a bowl this year. Virginia Tech will not.

That’s where the two programs are right now. Liberty has a good head coach in Hugh Freeze. If you add in 27 vacated wins while at Ole Miss, his career record is 103-45, including a 39-25 mark at Ole Miss and a 64-20 record everywhere else (Lambuth, Arkansas State, Liberty).

Regarding this year, as Chris has pointed out in detail, the Flames are squeaking out wins in close games. Liberty is 4-2 in one-score games, and Virginia Tech is 0-4. Most concerning for Hokie fans is that against Duke, Virginia Tech finally eliminated the penalties (zero for the game, a first since at least 1987) and nearly eliminated the turnovers (one INT), but still lost by 17 points and didn’t score for the last 58.5 minutes of the game.

Virginia Tech’s lack of punch on offense is especially concerning when matched up against a Liberty defense that is No. 1 nationally in TFLs, No. 5 in sacks, No. 5 in turnovers forced, and No. 6 in interceptions.

If this one is close towards the end, I think Liberty will find a way to win.

Will’s Prediction: Liberty 27, Virginia Tech 13

David Cunningham’s Take: This is a tough spot. Virginia Tech can’t seem to win. Liberty’s going to be fired up for this one with the big in-state school. 

I certainly think the Hokies have a chance. The defense has held its own lately, especially against Duke. Tech didn’t commit any penalties last week either, and the turnover margin was even. The problem… well, Virginia Tech couldn’t exactly move the ball. Six drives ended in punts, four of which were three-and-outs. Grant Wells was 16-of-28, each running back averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry, but the offense stalled time and time again. 

This is actually the first game all season I’m not covering. Instead, I’m headed to Charleston to cover Tech men’s basketball in its three-game tournament. I’ll try to tune in on ESPN+, but I’m also not sure if I’ll want to. I don’t feel very hopeful, especially with Liberty’s ability to get in the backfield and force turnovers. I think the Hokies will score (and likely lead at some point) and keep it close, but even their kicking game is a question mark right now. Not great signs.

David’s Prediction: Liberty 24, Virginia Tech 7

Last Game’s Virginia Tech-Duke Prediction Poll Results

Game Result:  Duke 24, Virginia Tech 7

What's your prediction for the 2022 Virginia Tech-Duke game?

  • Blue Devils Win by 11+ (58%, 553 Votes)
  • Blue Devils Win by 1-10 (25%, 238 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (13%, 122 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 11+ (5%, 48 Votes)

Total Voters: 961

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2022 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - TSL Staff
Chris (8-2)
Will (7-3)
David (8-2)
@NC State
Georgia Tech
2022 Virginia Tech Football Predictions Tracker - Fans (6-3)

(record based on W-L, not margin of victory)
Fan Poll
Hokies Win by 11+
ODU 20, Hokies 17
Boston College
Hokies Win by 1-10
Hokies 27, BC 10
Hokies Win by 11+
Hokies 27, Wofford 7
Hokies Win by 1-10
WVU 33, Hokies 10
UNC Wins by 11+
UNC 41, Hokies 10
Pittsburgh Wins by 11+
Pittsburgh 45, Hokies 29
Hurricanes Win by 11+
Miami 20, Hokies 14
@NC State
Wolfpack Wins by 11+
NC State 22, Hokies 21
Georgia Tech
Hokies Win by 1-10
GT 28, Hokies 27
Blue Devils Win by 11+
Duke 24, Hokies 7

29 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. we have to have one game where we play 4 quarters of good ball, because we have played so bad at times. We win this one because the only place is to look up !

  2. Just saying…….I remember when a lot of folks finally realized it was time to move on from Fuente, people laughed, scoffed, and thought it was a joke to consider pulling up Freeze. Opinions thought he was washed up/had no morales etc etc. Look at him after 4years running; the Flames are arguably the best team in the state right now averaging an 8-3 win record four years in a row.

  3. My concern with Liberty is being out coached. Hugh Freeze is a very good coach and understands personnel, packages, and schemes as well as anyone. He’s also really good at exploiting any kind of weakness on the opposing team. VT has more #1 talent, but the depth is about the same for both teams.

  4. Of note to me are our lack of players from FL. Note the few we do have are our better players (Kendricks King and Pollard) but we don’t have nearly enough of those guys. Liberty has guys passed over or missed in the FL landscape and they’re being successful

    Our best teams have had some really good FL players sprinkled throughout the roster both sides of LOS and skill positions

  5. We don’t have a competent coaching staff, even with a talent advantage (maybe). Worse, we don’t have the mental makeup to take it to another team, particularly in close games. The more irritating thing to me is that Liberty was able to get so many transfers on their OL – and we couldn’t to any material degree.

      1. Being “due” and “earning” a win with solid coaching that leads to high player performance are two different things. Coaches need to get their collective sh1t together and earn this win.

  6. As you mention in your article, Liberty coaches get the most out of their players…Well, isn’t that a novel concept? When was the last time that happened in Blacksburg? Seeing the headline, “…facing strong Liberty Def…” means it’s going to be long day of 3 and outs.

    1. That is coaching and play design. If you watch some of the better offensive teams, you notice how creative their play design is to get the ball to playmakers quickly. The Chiefs are masterful.

  7. This is possibly the senior/super senior’s last college game. It has been a long, strange trip for these players and I think they will show up in Lynchburg: VT 24 – Flames 21.

  8. “…excited for the opportunity to play a big in-state program…” Maybe that reference should apply to the Hokies, since Liberty has a bigger enrollment and a better football team, eh?

  9. Would be interested in seeing the trend of the polls over the season. At what point did the fans face reality and start picking the opponent? Just a curiosity question.

    1. Here is my list of teams I hate to lose to the most:
      #1 UNC, #2 LU, #3 ODU, #4 JMU, #5 UVA.

      Embarrasing that the Hokies have lost to #2 – #4, such that they even needed to be added to the list!!

  10. Liberty tends to gain lots of yardage on “chunk plays”…. and, Hokies tend to give up tons of yardage on chunk.plays”. Flames win (hope I’m wrong).

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