BLACKSBURG — In a sullen and shell-shocked Virginia Tech locker room, after an improbable loss to Liberty, Hokies football coach Justin Fuente apologized to his players for a timeout that went horribly wrong.
With 8 seconds left and the Flames lining up to attempt a prayer-in-the-breeze 59-yard field goal, Fuente yelled to the officials to call a timeout. By the time they blew their whistles, kicker Alex Barbir’s low kick had been stuffed by lineman Silas Dzansi, scooped up by defensive back Jermaine Waller and returned for an apparent score.
But the whistle did blow. The timeout had been called. The play that saved the day for the Hokies officially never occurred.
An 8-yard completion later, Barbir came on again, drilling a career-long 51-yard kick to lift No. 25 Liberty to a 38-35 win.
“I guess I waited too long. That’s what I told the team — ‘It’s on me,’” Fuente said. “I’ll never get over it. I wish I never called time out.”
Of course, Fuente’s ill-fated timeout was far from the only catalyst for Tech’s first loss at home to a non-Power Five opponent since a 2014 loss to East Carolina.
An errant official’s whistle earlier in the game wiped out a likely defensive touchdown on a fumble by Liberty quarterback Malik Willis.
Wide receiver Tayvion Robinson’s fumbled punt return inside the 10-yard line set up the Flames’ fourth touchdown of the day.
On the play following the timeout-nullified block, Tech’s defense — anticipating a heave into the end zone — played back off Liberty’s receivers, allowing an 8-yard completion and setting up Barbir’s game-winner.
“[Coach] also mentioned how we shouldn’t have been in that situation anyways, which he’s right, completely,” safety Divine Deablo said. “We should have played a lot better.”
There was a time when Virginia Tech (4-3) could survive a few big mistakes in a nonconference game against a state opponent. Those times are gone.
The Hokies are 27-5 against state opponents since 1980. Three of those five losses have come in the last 10 years — Liberty this year, Old Dominion in 2018 and James Madison in 2010.
Undefeated and nationally ranked, No. 25 Liberty (7-0) still went into Lane Stadium on Saturday as a two-touchdown underdog, doubted because of its weak strength of schedule to this point.
It left legitimized. And it left the home team reeling.
All afternoon, Virginia Tech’s defense couldn’t get off the field. Liberty (7-0) went 6 for 13 on third down and 4 for 4 converting on fourth down. It held the ball for 37:27 to Tech’s 22:33.
Willis, who had given Tech a recruiting commitment but instead went to Auburn, then transferred to Liberty, had his way with the Hokies. Willis threw for 217 yards and three scores. He ran for 108 and a touchdown. He helped put Tech in an early 14-3 hole.
Late in the fourth quarter, there was so little doubt Willis and the Flames could move the ball, Fuente opted to have his defense let running back Peytton Pickett score from 9 yards out, preserving more time for a response.
Pickett’s resistance-free touchdown left the Hokies down 35-28 with 1:41 to play. Time enough, it would turn out, for Tech’s Hendon Hooker to lead a masterly game-tying drive, only to see Liberty rally for the bizarre finish.
Hooker threw for 217 yards and three scores and ran for 156 and a touchdown, carrying an offense that played without star running back Khalil Herbert. Herbert, the ACC’s leading rusher, left the game with a hamstring injury after the opening kickoff.
The Hokies also played without injured tight end James Mitchell and lost star linebacker Rayshard Ashby during the game.
Still, when Hooker found Tre Turner for a 12-yard scoring strike with 52 seconds left, then improvised a 2-point conversion with a late flip of the ball to Raheem Blackshear in the end zone, things were tied 35-35.
It appeared the Hokies might survive their mistakes.
But not this time.
Fuente said his timeout wasn’t designed to ice Barbir, a Penn State transfer who enrolled at Liberty as a regular student, spent three years at the Lynchburg school, then walked onto the football team this year. Before this season, he had never made a college field goal. Before Saturday, he had never made one longer than 42 yards, never tried one longer than 48.
His 59-yarder shot low right into the mass of offensive linemen Tech uses in the middle of its kick-block team. Dzansi sent it ricocheting backward. Waller carried it to the end zone.
“I heard the whistle, but I thought it was an inadvertent whistle or I was just imagining things,” Hooker said. “I saw the block and I was thinking the game was over.”
Moments later, it would be.
Liberty 7 7 7 17 — 38
Virginia Tech 3 17 0 15 — 35
LIB—Yarbrough 32 pass from Willis (Barbir kick), 9:46.
VT—FG B.Johnson 41, 4:40.
LIB—J.Jackson 2 pass from Willis (Barbir kick), 12:11.
VT—Gallo 3 pass from Hooker (B.Johnson kick), 8:48.
VT—Hooker 12 run (B.Johnson kick), 4:36.
VT—FG B.Johnson 18, :01.
LIB—Willis 19 run (Barbir kick), 6:26.
LIB—Huntley 5 pass from Willis (Barbir kick), 10:29.
VT—K.Smith 9 pass from Hooker (Blackshear pass from Hooker), 5:46.
LIB—Pickett 9 run (Barbir kick), 1:41.
VT—Turner 12 pass from Hooker (B.Johnson kick), :52.
LIB—FG Barbir 51, :01.
First downs 29 25
Rushes-yards 50-249 31-201
Passing 217 217
Comp-Att-Int 20-30-0 20-27-0
Return Yards 36 28
Punts-Avg. 2-44.0 2-51.0
Fumbles-Lost 4-2 2-1
Penalties-Yards 8-50 5-45
Time of Possession 37:27 22:33
Rushing–Liberty, Willis 19-108, Mack 19-90, Pickett 6-30, Louis 5-22, Stubbs 1-(minus 1). Virginia Tech, Hooker 20-156, Blackshear 9-33, Holston 1-12, Turner 1-0.
Passing–Liberty, Willis 20-30-0-217. Virginia Tech, Hooker 20-27-0-217.
Receiving–Liberty, Yarbrough 5-65, Stubbs 3-24, Shaa 2-43, Huntley 2-30, Daniels 2-17, Frith 2-17, Douglas 2-14, Louis 1-5, J.Jackson 1-2. Virginia Tech, Turner 6-90, T.Robinson 4-46, Blackshear 4-30, Gallo 3-15, K.Smith 2-26, Fairs 1-10.
Missed Field Goals–Virginia Tech, B.Johnson 50.