This week’s opponent blog post features the Q&A with an opposing beat writer whose byline should be a familiar one for the readers of The News & Advance. Mike Barber is a New Jersey native and a 2001 Rutgers graduate. He's been covering college football in the Commonwealth since 2002 and has been writing about Virginia and Virginia Tech for the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 2012. He stops by to answer a few questions about UVa. For his coverage of the Cavaliers, and the Hokies, follow him on Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber.
Now onto the Q&A:
N&A: Virginia controls its destiny in the ACC Coastal division standings and has an important showdown scheduled with Virginia Tech on Black Friday. How do the Cavaliers view this nonconference matchup against Liberty?
MB: I think the schedule was essentially set up to give UVa the best chance possible against Virginia Tech, with a bye week and this, essentially irrelevant late-season non-conference game. Of course, Virginia wants to win this game. If they can win this and the VT game, they'd be a fairly attractive Orange Bowl team, even if they went and got smoked by Clemson in the ACC title game.
The hope, certainly, is that UVa will play well early in this one, get an early lead and be able to protect some key starters like Bryce Perkins and Joe Reed, who are perpetually banged up. With Liberty's struggles against the run this season, I'm sure Virginia would like to be able to run the ball with its running backs and not let Perkins take any extra hits.
N&A: Last season, I asked you about Bryce Perkins' development as a passer. This season, it seems like he has found a much better balance between running and passing. How has his dual-threat nature allowed this UVa offense to thrive?
MB: Perkins was underwhelming for the first half of the season, as Virginia was reluctant to turn him loose while backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong was out with an injury. But the past two games, UVa has gotten back to the offense the way it’s supposed to look. And the way it's supposed to look is lots and lots of Bryce Perkins. The passing game has taken another step forward this season, with Reed, Hasise Dubois and Terrell Jana all emerging as receivers capable of big games. Still, it all comes down to Perkins and, largely, to his running. UVa is 10-1 the last two seasons in games when Perkins rushes for a touchdown.
N&A: Cornerback Bryce Hall and safety Juan Thornhill were instrumental in limiting the Liberty passing attack last season. With Thornhill now in Kansas City and Hall out for the season, how will the Cavaliers defend an improved passing attack led by quarterback Buckshot Calvert and the nation's second-leading receiver, Antonio Gandy-Golden?
MB: It could be a struggle. UVa has lost five defensive backs for the season, including Hall, an All-American. Nick Grant and De'Vante Cross, who moved from safety, have done an adequate job at corner, while Joey Blount has excelled at safety. Expect to see some freshmen, including Tenyah Dixon, Shawn Smith and Jaylon Baker get lots of action in this game.
N&A: How potent is the Virginia linebacker corps, led by Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier?
MB: Even with the season-ending injury to inside linebacker Rob Snyder, this unit is the strength of the defense. Zandier is steady, Mack can be explosive and the group's best player, outside linebacker Charles Snowden, can be dominant. The linebacker position accounts for 42 1/2 of the team's 73 tackles for losses this season. In the 3-4 defense that Bronco Mendenhall runs, having depth and talent at linebacker is vital and he's spent four years building up the position. Now, with a serviceable defensive line, Mendenhall and his staff can really turn the linebackers loose on blitzes.
N&A: This one is rather simple: Why are teams still kicking to Joe Reed, who leads the nation in kickoff return touchdowns and is second in kickoff return yards?
MB: I have no idea. The good news for Liberty is that Reed is dinged up and UVa may put Tavares Kelly back in this game to return kickoffs to keep [Reed] healthy for Virginia Tech. Teams have tried some other things against Reed this season, including sky-kicks to the up man, often Kelly. At the end of the day, the best defense against Reed is to have a kickoff man who can bang the ball through the end zone.