Liberty quarterback Buckshot Calvert doesn’t spend much time reliving his performance against Virginia last season in Charlottesville. In fact, it’s one he’d rather not discuss.
The signal caller was frequently under duress from a relentless pass rush, despite the Cavaliers only recording one sack in the 21-point triumph, and the constant pressure forced him into throwing three interceptions. It also didn’t help that his favorite target, Antonio Gandy-Golden, was blanketed by cornerback Bryce Hall as safety Juan Thornhill delivered help over the top.
UVa will have a vastly different look in the secondary when Calvert lines up behind center Saturday at Scott Stadium: Hall, an All-American, is out for the remainder of the season, and Thornhill, the Altavista native, is starting for the Kansas City Chiefs. But the Cavaliers still possess a potent pass rush that will test Calvert’s ability to stand in the pocket and wait for routes to develop.
“Those two guys were a big factor last year, and not having them this year is very good for us,” Calvert said of Hall and Thornhill. “They’ve still got a lot of guys up front that we’ve got to worry about, too. They haven’t really changed necessarily their schemes and stuff like that. We’ve got to be ready to be in a dogfight and prepare throughout this week to get us ready for Saturday.”
The Cavaliers (7-3, 5-2 ACC) have made up for Hall’s absence by winning three of the four full games he has missed since undergoing left ankle surgery for an injury he sustained in the first half at Miami on Oct. 11.
UVa has limited the chances its opponents have to throw the ball with a pass rush that quickly gets to the quarterback. No team has attempted more than 30 passes since Hall’s injury, and the defense has racked up 20 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in the four games.
“They’re very well-coached. They’re going to be in the right spots and they try if they feel like they are limited some in the athletic realm, they make up for it by the plethora of coverages they present to you,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “ … Obviously, there’s always weaknesses to coverages and if you can have the right pass route called when they’re in that scheme, you’ve got a good chance. The goal and the challenge for us in the play-calling realm will be having it called at the right time against the right coverage because they do an excellent job at bringing pressure and mixing up the coverages behind the pressures.”
De’Vante Cross moved from free safety to cornerback to replace Hall opposite of Nick Grant. Cross is among the team leaders with 43 tackles, while Grant has one interception.
The shift at cornerback could potentially open up more possibilities for Gandy-Golden to find openings in the secondary. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver was held to two catches in last season’s game.
“It doesn’t make much of a difference; they played off last year and they’ll play off this year,” Gandy-Golden said of the change in cornerbacks. “They’re going to try to keep a lot of things in front of them, besides on certain downs. For the most part it will be the same. I don’t think it will matter who it is.”
The Cavaliers’ pass rush has accounted for 73 tackles for a loss and 34 sacks this season. The linebacker corps, which includes Jordan Mack, Zane Zandier, and Charles Snowdown, has combined for 27 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks.
The three are expected to bring even more pressure this weekend to prevent the Flames (6-4) from getting into a rhythm offensively.
“We just have to execute and do our best to get open and make it easy for Buck to see,” Gandy-Golden said, “because he’s probably not going to have too much time back there, so we’ve just got to do what we have to do.”
While Calvert had one of his worst statistical performances in a Liberty uniform against the Cavaliers, the running attack actually found some room.
The Flames finished with 205 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and that type of success could be a recipe for staying in the game again.
UVa held five of its first six opponents to less than 100 yards rushing but has allowed four straight foes to crack the 100-yard threshold. Louisville finished with 227 rushing yards in the Cavaliers’ last loss on Oct. 26.
“Only one team has really run the ball on this group,” Freeze said. “I think we go into every game that you have to have the appearance that you’re balanced. We’ve been pretty effective at doing that. That will be our attempt this week also.
“There will be a lot of runs called; whatever happens after the snap kind of will depend on how Virginia is playing us. We certainly will have the appearance that we’re attempting to run it.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.