CHARLOTTESVILLE – Virginia plays one final non-conference game Saturday against Liberty before the following Friday’s massive meeting with rival Virginia Tech.
Damien Sordelett, a 2008 George Mason graduate, has been at The News & Advance since late 2012. Sordelett, who grew up north of Richmond in Henrico County, has been covering Liberty full-time since 2015.
All season long, we'll bring you a look from the other side, getting the insight and thoughts of newspaper beat writers from Virginia and Virginia Tech's opponents. These are the local journalists who cover these teams on a daily basis. We hope it reminds you the value of reading local newspapers and their websites.
Sordelett took time out to answer four downs worth of questions about Liberty going into Saturday’s game at Virginia.
1) What is the excitement level around Hugh Freeze getting his second chance in college football at Liberty? How have fans reacted to the team's first season as a bowl-eligible FBS team and its schedule this season? Do they think Freeze will stick around, or use this Flames job as a stepping stone back to a major program?
There remains a genuine excitement on campus around Freeze getting his second chance in college football at Liberty. Most on campus were thrilled when he was hired because he spoke about 11 months prior at one of the university’s thrice-weekly convocations. That was his first public appearance since his resignation at Mississippi, and he used the platform to admit his faults and ask for forgiveness. That openness allowed the university community to embrace him when most of the nation was split on him getting a second chance with the baggage he brought from his previous stop.
I’ll answer the third question before the second. The fans are hopeful Freeze will stick around for the entirety of his five-year contract, but they realize his name will be frequently included when Power 5 positions come open. Heck, his name has already been linked to Florida State and Arkansas by national outlets and fans who want to bring in a proven commodity. But Freeze has repeatedly said this season he is a program builder and wants to be the coach to get Liberty to its first bowl game, and he said what the university has done for him following his back surgery for a staph infection -- flying in Dr. Dilan Ellegala from Scottsdale, Arizona, to perform the surgery, setting him up in a hotel overlooking the campus and having a direct feed into practices, setting up a hospital bed in the coaches’ booth to coach the opener against Syracuse and purchasing a medical chair to coach at Louisiana-Lafayette -- is something not many programs would have done. He is grateful to Liberty for what it did and wants to reward the university with at least the bowl bid.
The fan turnout for the opener at home against Syracuse (the first time a Power 5 program has visited Lynchburg) was a little disappointing, but expected with the unseasonably warm weather in late August. The Flames are averaging a little more than 18,000 fans per game with strong atmospheres against Buffalo and Maine (homecoming), and the post-Thanksgiving game to close the season against New Mexico State is the Military Appreciation Game and that always draws a good-sized crowd. As the season has progressed, there has gradually been more and more buzz about becoming bowl eligible, especially with multiple publications predicting Liberty could go to the Cure, Boca Raton and Birmingham bowls. There was some buzz last season because of the program’s secondary tie-in with the Cure Bowl (which would have taken Liberty last season if it reached bowl eligibility and there weren’t enough bowl eligible teams).
2) Liberty's independent schedule hasn't exactly been a tough one. It lost both its Power 5 games so far -- 24-0 to Syracuse and 44-34 to Rutgers. Its four FBS wins have come against teams that are a combined 9-32. How are the Flames viewing their chances in what has to be considered their hardest game of the season?
Liberty is actually rather confident heading into this matchup against the Cavaliers. If you go back to last season’s game, Liberty trailed 31-24 and had the ball with a chance to tie the game. But a fateful decision to go for it on fourth down deep in its own territory midway through the third quarter opened the floodgates for Virginia to pull away over the final 22 minutes. The Flames rushed for 205 yards and were only down one score midway through the third quarter despite quarterback Buckshot Calvert throwing for a measly 149 yards and three interceptions. (We’ll touch on Calvert later.)
The schedule isn’t glamorous by any means, but as a transitioning FBS program that is independent, Liberty put together this schedule in a span of three months in 2017, and at that point identifying strong competition wasn’t the administration’s priority; it was just getting games to meet the FBS criteria. The hope was the likes of Buffalo and New Mexico and fellow independents New Mexico State and UMass would be contending for victories on a more consistent basis, but that obviously has not materialized this season.
3) Liberty is only averaging 25.9 points per game against FBS opponents. Take out the 63 points it hung on a terrible UMass team, and that average dips to 20.6. So, is the Flames’ offense actually good or has it just piled up numbers against bad opponents?
The numbers are actually a bit deceiving. The first two games against Syracuse and Louisiana when Liberty scored a combined 14 points, Freeze was laid up in the hospital bed and medical chair in the coaches booth and wasn’t able to contribute much to the offensive play calling. Since he has moved down to the field, the offense is a bit more efficient, but it is not playing at the tempo many fans expected when he was hired. Freeze, through his time serving as a consultant during his two seasons in coaching purgatory, saw how coaches adjusted their gameplans to account for personnel on both sides of the ball. So he elected to play complementary football and slow down the offense to give the defense a chance to not be on the field so much. That necessitated the offense often going to checks on the sideline instead of lining up and running a play almost immediately after the ball is placed. The result was lower-scoring games against New Mexico and New Mexico State, and Freeze then decided to open the offense up beginning with the second FCS opponent on the schedule, Maine. Thirty-seven of Liberty’s 48 offensive scoring drives have lasted less than 3 minutes, so the explosiveness is there to strike quick if needed.
4) Regardless of the competition, Stephen Calvert's 23 touchdown passes with just three interceptions is impressive. Take out the two-interception, seven-sack game against Syracuse and his numbers are even more eye-popping. What's a scouting report on Calvert? What does he do well?
Calvert will have the look of a completely different quarterback than the one fans at Scott Stadium saw last season. His decision-making has vastly improved, which has resulted in him not throwing an interception in 281 consecutive passes since the second drive of the first quarter on Sept. 7 at Louisiana-Lafayette. Calvert threw 18 interceptions last season -- including the trio of picks I alluded to earlier in Charlottesville -- and most of those throws were forced into tight windows when he felt he needed to make a play to get the offense going. Freeze and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kent Austin have worked tirelessly with Calvert on improving his mechanics and decision-making so each of his passes are delivered with purpose. The senior has a strong arm and is capable of completing every throw around the field, whether it’s down the middle, outside the numbers, back-shoulder or fade routes. His evolution has allowed him to target more receivers than Antonio Gandy-Golden, the nation’s second-leading receiver. Calvert has completed passes to 15 different receivers this season, which has allowed Gandy-Golden to take advantage of one-on-one matchups for big plays.