It's hard to believe, but Saturday afternoon is Senior Day at Scott Stadium. The season has flown by for the Hoos it seems. Now, awaiting UVA (6-3, 4-2) is Liberty (4-4) for the rare nonconference game in November. The Hoos will look to use the first meeting between the programs to bounce back from a disheartening loss to a physical Pitt Panthers team.
The Hoos are big favorites against the Flames. What are the keys to making Senior Day a success and avoiding the first losing streak of the season?
The Hoos are back to the Moore to Moore inspired uniforms this week. It will be the first time in this combo since the win over Louisville.
Winning Frame Of Mind
If the Hoos don't hit the field Saturday in the right frame of mind, we'll all be popping Tums the entire afternoon. From the outset of the Pitt game, it was clear that something was off between the shoulders. A myriad of early penalties on offense showed that the focus was off. There were several instances where the team couldn't get formations organized on both offense and defense. There was difficulty in getting play calls in to Bryce Perkins. And the defense didn't appear to be strong enough mentally to respond to Pitt's punch in the mouth that played out in the form of a 15 play, 84 yard drive that lasted for over half of the third quarter.
In my mind, there are three pillars to the correct mental approach against Liberty.
First, don't be overconfident. This one is pretty simple. Liberty, an independent in the first year as a provisional FBS member, is thought to be an inferior program. The Hoos must respect their opponent and its abilities if they're to avoid a nightmare scenario.
Second, limit Liberty's opportunities to gain confidence of their own. Don't turn the ball over on offense. Don't take terrible sacks when throwing the ball away would suffice. Get off the field on third down. Make the easy tackle instead of allowing chunks of yards after catch. And don't give up back breaking plays in the return game. Avoid those pitfalls which are often more of a function of a mental mistake than a physical one and Liberty will struggle to amass the confidence necessary to pull off the upset.
Get Liberty down early and then finish them. The quicker the Hoos can make the game uncompetitive, the quicker everyone at Scott Stadium and watching from home can exhale. If UVA lets Liberty stick around or stay within striking distance, the UVA sideline runs the risk of getting tight while the Liberty sideline stays lose and plays like they have nothing to lose. Extinguish the Flames and then forget to turn off the hose.
Gandy-Golden Versus Hall
Antonio Gandy-Golden is Liberty's 6-4, 220 pound junior wideout. He leads the Flames in receptions (55), yards (844), and touchdown receptions (9). When they see one on one coverage, Liberty loves to target Gandy-Golden with jump balls.
WELCOME BACK 🎵 WELCOME BACK 🎵 WELCOME BACK 🎵— Liberty Football (@LibertyFootball) October 20, 2018
After missing last week, Antonio Gandy-Golden scores his 6th Touchdown of the season! Flames lead Idaho State 13-3. #ThisIsLiberty #RiseWithUs pic.twitter.com/0VXjmDOgU6
Enter Bryce Hall. Hall is UVA's biggest, most physical defensive back. He's having a dominating season, shutting down an entire side of the field most weeks. If there's anyone that's going to ensure a quiet afternoon for Gandy-Golden, it's Bryce Hall.
Win this battle and Liberty's offense becomes so much easier to defend.
Offensive Line, Statement Time
The UVA OL had a rough go of it versus Pitt. The OL play was better against UNC in the prior week, but it still had moments that made the best of UVA fans pray for the days of a dominant offensive line (or an above average one, at least).
Liberty allows 285.8 yards per game through the air (123 out of 130). They allow 238.0 yards per game on the ground (121 out of 130). Their total defense ranks 112 out of 130. And their defensive efficiency ranks 105 out of 130.
Last week against UMASS, the Flames allowed 777 yards in a triple OT loss. The previous week against Idaho State, they surrendered 631 yards in a seven point win (48-41).
It's important to remember that UVA's offensive line features a redshirt sophomore (Reinkensmeyer), a true sophomore (Glaser), a redshirt freshman (Nelson), and a true freshman (Haskins) in its top seven. But if the OL is unable to dominate this game leading to massive amounts of yardage and points, it will be a serious red flag.
The OL is afforded the rare opportunity to get right against a generous opponent so late into the season. For the immediate game and the rest of the season, they must take advantage.
UVA's health on defense is the biggest question mark for this game. The Hoos must play the hand they're dealt. And while Liberty has posted impressive point totals in some games this season, they've also posted some modest ones as well (14 vs Army, 7 vs North Texas, 22 vs Troy).
Linebacker heavy sub packages on defense should be enough this game to cover for Mandy Alonso's absence. Secondary depth in the form of Nick Grant, De'Vante Cross, Heskin Smith, Joseph White, and Darrius Bratton should also be enough in the event that any of Juan Thornhill, Joey Blount, and Brenton Nelson are out.
But in the event that UVA's defense isn't as stout as normal, the offense must pick up the slack and lead the way. It's Senior Day for faces of the program Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus. They'll be up to the task.
UVA wins 45 to 23.