Inside The Press Box: Liberty

  • Massachusetts running back Marquis Young (8) breaks a tackle and runs for yardage during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Connecticut, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/ (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2018 1:11:11 PM

This week is a big one for UMass on the field as it fights to keep its hopes of bowl eligibility still alive. But more importantly, it has a chance to make a statement in its final game at McGuirk this season against a first-year FBS foe.

To learn more about Liberty, I emailed this week with Damien Sordelett of the Lynchburg News & Advance. I also answered some UMass questions for him earlier this week.

Q: This is Liberty's first season as an FBS program, so how has the transition been for the Flames? Has it been easier than expected with four wins already?

A: The transition has been more successful than many projected. Most preseason publications had the Flames winning three or four games, and reaching four victories with one FCS opponent remaining (Norfolk State in a game rescheduled from Sept. 15 because of Hurricane Florence) has put the program ahead of schedule.

It hasn’t been easy by any means. The program has dealt with its fair share of struggles, which is expected in transitioning to the FBS. Every phase has been inconsistent, particularly on defense and special teams, as the players adjust from playing FCS competition last season to FBS competition this season. It has taken time for the players to adjust to the speed of the game at the FBS level and competing against high-quality opponents on a weekly basis. But the game is starting to slow down for many players, and that is vital heading into this five-week stretch to close the season.

Q: Saturday's game also marks the first in an eight-year series between these two schools that will last until 2025. What is Liberty's scheduling philosophy as an FBS independent because it's not a school that necessarily needs those payout games to keep the athletic department afloat?

A: Liberty is one contract away from having the 2022 schedule completed, and the Flames have games scheduled as far in advance as 2031.

The initial philosophy was simply filling the schedule to ensure there were six home and six road games each of the first four seasons. That was accomplished, and athletic director Ian McCaw and associate AD for internal operations Mickey Guridy are keeping that scheduling balance moving forward by ensuring at least six home games each season.

Geography has played a role in Liberty being able to secure so many games so quickly.

Being in the middle of ACC country has helped secure home-and-home series with Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke, and a one-game contract with N.C. State. Those home-and-home series are 2-for-1 deals, with the exception of U.Va and Virginia Tech as 4-for-2 deals.

The contracts obtained from the public universities through Freedom of Information Act requests show Liberty is receiving $500,000 for each home game and spending $250,000 for the road games against the ACC opponents. (There are some early games against UVa where Liberty is receiving more, and N.C. State is paying $1 million for the 2020 contest.) Even though the university is flushed with cash, the athletic department is still on a budget, and those guarantees from ACC schools are being flipped to pay guarantees to bring in home-and-home matchups with regional Group of 5 programs that are generally considered some of the better in the nation.

McCaw has said he wants to treat the fellow independents like a mini conference, so Liberty and UMass’ series will likely extend beyond 2025 as long as both remain independent. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more games against Army on the future schedules and the occasional matchup with BYU sprinkled in there as well.

Now that the schedule is set several years in advance, McCaw and Guridy are going to be more selective when it comes to scheduling opponents. That means more contests against ACC and regional opponents with maybe a trip to Texas sprinkled in from time to time.

Q: Liberty obviously likes to throw the ball a lot, which makes sense with a three-year starter at quarterback in Stephen Calvert. What makes Calvert and his weapons so effective in Turner Gill's offense?

A: Offensive coordinator Joe Dailey has installed more RPOs in the offensive scheme this season and given Calvert the ability to read the defense and decide whether the plays are going to be runs or passes.

The majority of the time, Calvert is reading favorable matchups in the pass game, which has led to more passing attempts. He has two viable weapons on the perimeter in junior Antonio Gandy-Golden, who many scouts have told me would be drafted in the upcoming NFL Draft if he were to come out early, and senior B.J. Farrow.

Gandy-Golden is Calvert’s favorite target. The two roomed together during the Summer Bridge program in the summer of 2016. (The program is designed to help in the transition from high school to college.) They worked out together and spent the summer nights at Williams Stadium playing catch and running routes under the neon lights of the old video board.

That chemistry has grown tremendously, and Gandy-Golden’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame creates favorable matchups against most cornerbacks. Gandy-Golden also has a background in gymnastics, so he is able to use his athleticism to win most battles for jump balls, evade defenders, break tackles, and have breakaway speed to finish plays.

Farrow has the team’s best hands, best route running ability and possesses a near 40-inch vertical.

Slot receiver DJ Stubbs has emerged as a go-to option, especially on third down, and he has the speed and elusiveness to find the windows for Calvert to get him the ball.

Calvert’s greatest tools are his arm strength and fearlessness to deliver passes into windows that most quarterbacks pass on in their progressions. That second tool has led to interceptions this season, but he is willing to take chances, especially if that results in a big play for the offense.

Q: The Flames are averaging six TFLs, two sacks and almost two turnovers per game this season, but the defense has allowed 40 or more points in four of its last five games. What am I missing about why Liberty is allowing so many points recently?

A: Missed tackles. It’s as simple as that.

The Flames missed several tackles late in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter against Army that was the result of the Black Knights’ option attack wearing down the defense and pulling away after Liberty cut the deficit to 10 points.

There is another case of missed tackles against New Mexico State. A missed tackle by several defenders prevented the offense from getting the ball back, and the Aggies maintained a two-score lead to secure the victory.

The loss at New Mexico State hurts the most since that would have put the Flames at 5-2 and one win away from bowl eligibility entering this five-game stretch to close the regular season.

After the loss to NMSU, defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly moved from the field to the coaches box, and the statistics look better.

The Flames have recorded 17 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries in the past two games.

Idaho State had success by generating more than 600 yards of offense, but that was the result of not fitting the gaps against the run, which hadn’t been an issue during the season’s first six games.

Q: Liberty wins if…

A: It contains Marquis Young and the UMass running game. Teams have enjoyed success this season against Liberty if they are able to establish the run game and use play-action pass to go vertical against the defense.

Young has proven he can churn out yards and the offensive line can establish the line of scrimmage. If Liberty is able to limit Young to 2 or 3 yards per carry and force Ross Comis to win the game with his arm, that will allow a rejuvenated defensive line to get into the backfield, force pressure and possibly lead to interceptions. That has been the recipe for success the past two games for the Liberty defense. Liberty is 4-0 in games it forces a turnover, and generating extra possessions for a potent offense and having short fields will only aid against a UMass defense that has become more formidable the past two games with its starters back in the lineup.

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