A few weeks ago, Virginia football’s season looked like it was slipping away. After suffering their third defeat in four games, the Cavaliers’ grasp on the ACC Coastal division was loosening. However, following back-to-back wins over North Carolina and Georgia Tech, Virginia (7-3, 5-2 ACC) is playing well again and hopes to continue that upward trajectory against Liberty (6-4) Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Liberty — a Division I FBS independent program — has only played two Power 5 schools all season — Syracuse and Rutgers — and have yet to play a team of Virginia’s caliber. Despite winning five straight games earlier this season, Liberty has lost two of its last three and will come to Charlottesville as big underdogs. With the Flames targeting a major upset, let’s take a look at the key factors that will decide the matchup.
Virginia sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa
Beyond senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, Virginia’s running game has struggled this season. The Cavaliers are averaging just 3.5 yards per attempt in 2019. Virginia’s inefficient rushing attack is particularly harmful when the Cavaliers are in the red zone. A key player for Virginia in these situations is Taulapapa.
In games where he successfully and consistently finds the end zone, Virginia seems to perform well. The Cavaliers’ last game against Georgia Tech is a prime example. Taulapapa’s two touchdowns helped Virginia keep pace with and eventually outlast the Yellow Jackets. If he can continue playing at a high level, the Cavaliers should be able to convert plenty of red zone trips into touchdowns against Liberty.
Liberty senior wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden
Gandy-Golden is a feature player in Liberty’s offense, which is averaging 32.8 points per game. The wideout has recorded 1244 yards and eight touchdowns so far this season. No other Liberty player has more than 361 yards or three receiving touchdowns.
Averaging nearly 20 yards per catch, Gandy-Golden is clearly a threat that Virginia needs to watch. With an injury-riddled secondary, the Cavaliers may struggle to contain Gandy-Golden who is a clear playmaker. His 73-yard touchdown against Buffalo in September exemplifies Gandy-Golden’s ability to burn defenses. If Virginia can limit Gandy-Golden, Liberty’s offense could be slowed down to a crawl.
Keys to the Game
Tackle with discipline
Tackling has been an issue at times for Virginia this season. Missed tackles can generate tens of yards for the opposing team, breathing life into what could be a struggling offense. Against Liberty, bad tackling on the part of the Cavaliers could gift yards to running backs junior Joshua Mack and senior Frankie Hickson. They average 6 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively.
Given Liberty’s efficient ground game, giving up extra yards to the Flames could develop into a substantial problem. Much of this responsibility will fall to Virginia’s linebackers who are responsible for making key tackles down the middle or on the edge.
Avoid red zone turnovers
Coming into the 2019 season, red zone efficiency was a known issue for Virginia. While the Cavaliers have looked better at times this year, these difficulties remain. Virginia has left countless points on the table by turning over the ball in scoring situations.
Although blame can be spread around, Perkins can certainly benefit from improved ball security. While Perkins’ heroic plays have saved Virginia multiple times, his desire to do it all for the Cavaliers can lead to reckless plays. From a talent perspective, Virginia should be able to comfortably beat Liberty. However, if the Cavaliers start missing touchdown opportunities, the Flames might be able to pull off the upset.
As Virginia prepares for its regular season finale against Virginia Tech over Thanksgiving break, a win over Liberty could be a big confidence-booster for the Cavaliers. Virginia will host Liberty Saturday with kick-off from Scott Stadium set for noon.