Closing in on their first win since September 17th, Virginia Tech needed their defense to make one more stand. Liberty’s final possession started at their own 22-yard line and with just under 3 minutes to go on the clock.
But just as soon as it began, the Flames last grasp at putting together a game-winning drive was thwarted by the hurling Hokies defense. Norell Pollard got to Kaidon Salter on first down. Then, TyJuan Garbutt sealed the deal for Tech with a vicious strip sack which was recovered by Jaylen Griffin. The play of the game from Garbutt was his second sack of the game to put his season total up to 6.5 in just nine games.
“It’s a great irony right, we haven’t been great there but we closed the game out with pressure,” Brent Pry said to the media postgame. “Sometimes, it takes weeks to get a return on it, but they’ve been pouring so much into pass rush and I’m proud of the way the guys stepped up.”
It was the Virginia Tech defense that put the game on ice in the closing stages of a 23-22 victory for the Hokies over the Liberty Flames in Williams Stadium. Virginia Tech has had a tumultuous season but gains their third victory to advance to 3-8 in their final road contest.
Early on, Virginia Tech jumped out to a 17-7 lead at the 7:06 mark of the second quarter. The Hokies' first scoring drive was built off the back of a 35-yard pitch and catch from Grant Wells to Nick Gallo to position Tech in the red zone. From there, the Hokies finished the drive off with a Jalen Holston rushing touchdown, a common theme of Saturday afternoon’s game.
“Kudos to our offensive line and Keshawn. He (Keshawn King) set it all up and told where I should hit it and where the holes are.” Jalen Holston said to reporters after the game.
Tech’s run game certainly went to work throughout all four quarters against Liberty. The Hokies rushed for 176 yards on 59 carries. Holston spearheaded the bludgeoning ground attack by gaining 99 yards on 26 carries himself and scoring all three of Virginia Tech’s touchdowns.
After the Flames scored their first touchdown of the game from a 19-yard run by Johnathan Bennett. Virginia Tech answered back in a fashion they’ve rarely exercised this season. Facing a fourth & six and trotting out the field goal unit, Brent Pry decided to roll the dice and fake the field goal attempt.
“This was one of those games where they could give us the look so we can call it,” Pry said postgame. “John (Love) showed some good speed there and protected the ball. It was well executed and great job by the special teams staff.”
The game continued to go the Hokies' way as Tech rewarded their Beamer Ball ways by capitalizing off the conversion with Holston’s second rushing touchdown of the day. Liberty was held in check until they pulled some special teams magic out of their own silk hat late in the second quarter. Flames running back Shedro Lewis took the kickoff following Tech’s 23-yard field goal all the way to the house and swung the momentum back into Liberty’s favor.
The Hokies then yielded a field goal drive to the Flames which ended in a knotted up score at halftime of 17-17. One aspect that forced the Hokies further on their toes was Liberty’s rapid change at quarterback. Liberty threw redshirt freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter out into the fire and it turned out he knew how to stoke the flames of the Liberty offense even higher.
“We had to be aware of his tendencies and that’s what film session this week was all about,” Keli Lawson said. “We were very prepared, on the fly it’s going to take time to adjust but I feel we ultimately got it figured out.”
Salter went 12-18 for 119 yards passing for the game and presented Tech’s defense with some unique challenges. However, the Hokies were up to the task and flustered the young quarterback into bad decisions as the game waned on.
“We knew he was more of a runner and that was big,” TyJuan Garbutt said. “Make sure we keep lane integrity and continue to play to the level we’re capable of.”
Indeed, the Hokies put Salter behind the eight ball numerous times in the second half, holding him to 2.3 yards per carry. On the other side, Liberty pummeled Tech’s Wells for six sacks of their own. None bigger than when the Flames dropped Wells in his own end zone and registered a massive safety.
Tech went scoreless in the third quarter and allowed Liberty to put up five points on the scoreboard and jump out to a 22-17 lead through 45 minutes of play. Perhaps the play that flipped the script for the Hokies came when Mansoor Delane jarred the ball free from Salter and Lawson pounced on the football from an avalanche of bodies on the turf.
“When we huddled up as a defense, we knew we had to get the ball out,” Lawson said. “That was an emphasis so as soon as I saw the ball hit the ground, I just knew somebody had to get it and they had to be wearing an orange jersey.”
From the fumble recovery, Tech drove down the field to create a 13-play, 64 yard drive which was capped off by Holston’s third touchdown. The Hokies had survived 15-straight Liberty points and suddenly found themselves with a narrow one-point advantage.
Pry decided to go for two and at first, the gamble seemed to pay off. Wells delivered a right pylon strike to Kaleb Smith which was ruled a score. However, the refs deemed Smith had in fact not completed the entire catch so Tech’s lead remained 23-22.
From then on, Virginia Tech's pass rush came to life as Dax Hollifield’s sack pinned Liberty back and they turned the ball over on downs. One failed Hokie offensive possession later and the Flames offense was stopped right in their tracks by the clutch efforts of Pollard & Garbutt.
“I knew I was setting their tackle up for a couple of good counter moves,” Garbutt said. “Once I got the play call, I knew there was a chance to impact the game.”
Virginia Tech came, saw, and conquered in Williams Stadium to notch their third victory of the season. In what’s been a tough year all around for the Hokies, it felt fantastic for the entire team to earn a hard fought victory from start to finish.
“That was a good football team we beat today,” Pry said. “I’m so happy and proud for our football team to have a chance to celebrate all the work and investment they made.”