Virginia Tech mismanages end of game, falls to Liberty in last seconds

Norm Wood, The Virginian-Pilot

Analytics exist on all manner of football minutiae, and statistics surely exist revealing the success of coaches who call timeouts before a long field-goal attempt by an opponent.

Coach Justin Fuente showed how it can all go wrong Saturday in Virginia Tech’s stunning 38-35 loss to No. 25 Liberty.

A split-second before Jermaine Waller’s 59-yard return for an apparent touchdown after teammate Silas Dzansi blocked Liberty kicker Alex Barbir’s desperate 59-yard field-goal attempt with eight seconds left, Fuente called a timeout. He said it wasn’t a timeout designed to “ice the kicker,” but he instead wanted to get his field-goal-block team organized.

His plan backfired in spectacular fashion.

After an 8-yard completion moved Liberty (7-0) to Virginia Tech’s 33-yard line with five seconds left, Barbir got another crack, knocking a kick through from 51 yards away with one second left and setting off a frenzied Liberty celebration.

“I don’t believe in waiting until the last second to call timeout in those situations,” Fuente said. “I don’t ever like letting the kicker have a free swing at it. I guess I waited too long. That’s what I told the team — it’s on me. … I never wait that long. I never have. If we are going to take a timeout, I take it early so they don’t get a chance to snap it. I said ‘timeout,’ they didn’t hear me and I screamed ‘timeout.’ The ref blew the whistle, they snapped it and we blocked it and, obviously, it didn’t count. It’s pretty crushing. … I’ll never get over it. I wish I never called timeout.”

As demoralizing as the almost game-winning touchdown return ended up being, Tech (4-3) had defensive breakdowns, misfortunes and officiating blunders put the Hokies in a bad situation long before Barbir’s field goal.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, who committed to Tech for nearly six months in 2016 and early 2017 before reneging on the pledge, committing to Auburn and ultimately transferring to Liberty, chewed up Tech.

Passing for 217 yards and three touchdowns and adding 108 rushing yards and a touchdown, Willis helped Liberty amass 466 yards and finish with a 15-minute advantage in time of possession. Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker was even more impactful, also passing for 217 yards and three touchdowns, but adding 156 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

After falling behind 14-3, Tech seemed to get on track with 17 unanswered points, but Liberty stuck around. Tech looked like it was about to take control with about two minutes left in the half when defensive end Jaylen Griffin sacked Willis at the Hokies' 9, resulting in a fumble that nickel back Chamarri Conner scooped up and appeared destined to bring back for either a long return or a touchdown.

Instead, an official’s whistle blew the play dead. After a review, Tech was given the ball back at the Hokies' 9, and Tech could only muster an 18-yard field goal out of the ensuing drive to extend its lead to 20-14 at halftime.

Trailing 21-20 late in the third quarter, Tech was about to get the ball back after forcing Liberty to punt, but Cox High graduate Tayvion Robinson muffed a punt and Liberty’s Benjamin Alexander recovered it at Tech’s 5. One play later, Willis found tight end Johnny Huntley on a 5-yard touchdown pass with 10:29 left in the third quarter, extending Liberty’s lead to 28-20.

“Painful” doesn’t begin to describe the manner in which Tech dropped a game in which it entered as a 17-point favorite, but the Hokies will come out of the weekend with more to worry about than simply licking their wounds after a loss.

Three things we learned

* Holding Louisville’s Micah Cunningham to 47 rushing yards last weekend seemed to show Tech’s defense might have some success consistently keeping elusive quarterbacks at bay. Willis' ability to find seams on the ground revealed some of Tech’s old vulnerabilities.

Tech lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games in which it has given up at least 100 rushing yards to a quarterback (1-8 in such games under Fuente). With Miami’s D’Eriq King on tap next Saturday in Blacksburg, Tech has a lot to address.

* Hooker is a bit of a one-man show when Khalil Herbert isn’t available. Herbert returned one kickoff for 12 yards before exiting the game with a hamstring injury that had bothered him leading up the game.

Without Herbert, Tech running backs Raheem Blackshear and Jalen Holston combined to have 10 carries for 45 yards, while Hooker did most of the running on run-pass option plays.

* Tech is also dealing with some missing pieces at two other starting spots. Tight end James Mitchell didn’t play Saturday, and linebacker Rayshard Ashby left midway through the second quarter with an injury and didn’t return.

Crazy path

Before booting his career-long kick of 51 yards, Barbir was 2-of-6 on field-goal attempts of more than 29 yards for his career — and this is the only season in which the senior has attempted a field goal.

He started his career at Penn State, where he was on the roster for two seasons before having hip surgery and transferring to Liberty because his two older brothers went there. Barbir was encouraged to walk on at Liberty in the spring by special teams coordinator Tanner Burns.

Norm Wood, nwood@dailypress.com

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