Liberty football is on a bye this week, so we have plenty of time to take a breath, rest our tailgating legs, collect our thoughts, and look ahead to the final stretch of the season. It has been an up-and-down ride to this point of the year. During the bye, I would like to take this time to share some of my highest, and lowest, points so far this season.
The season started with a boom the weekend of the Montana game.
The weekend started with lots of questions and unknowns, and ended with talk of being a national power. Not only did the night end with the win, but it was done in front of a raucous and record crowd of over 20,000.
Coach McKay and the basketball program even jumped on the opportunity picking up commitments from Brock Gardner and Elijah Cuffee while on their visit. These are two crucial commitments as Coach McKay builds the program back up.
After the win, Josh Woodrum said, “we’re not just some little Christian school anymore, we’re an FCS powerhouse.” More on Woodrum later.
Another long September Saturday in the MidWest.
Hearkening back to last year when Liberty got beat soundly by a solid Missouri Valley team, the same happened when the Flames faced Southern Illinois. Trailing by as much as 21, LU was dominated on the ground. The Salukis outgained the Flames 255-81 rushing on the afternoon, and they gained 6.1 yards per rush.
Well, that’s ok. It’s just a small blip on the radar this season…
The Flames responded in Atlanta to move to 2-0 against Sun Belt teams.
When Liberty controlled the game against Georgia State to secure its 4th ever FBS victory, it looked like the Southern Illinois game would be just a small blip on the radar. The Flames held the Panthers to 11 yards rushing while racking up over 500 yards of offense themselves. If it wasn’t for 3 Georgia State touchdown passes for 58+ yards, the game would have been a rout.
All the seniors did their jobs efficiently. D.J. Abnar had 164 all-purpose yards. Josh Woodrum completed nearly 80% of his 33 passes for 242 yards. Darrin Peterson had 9 receptions. John Lunsford was perfect on his field goals including a 56-yarder in the final minutes.
Liberty had concluded non-conference play at 3-2 after facing arguably the toughest non-conference slate in program history. Another playoff bid was merely a formality, whether it was an at-large or an automatic bid, and all the Flames were playing for was playoff seeding from here on out.
Or so we thought…
Goose eggs at Gardner-Webb & Monmouth lead Josh Woodrum to calling out yours truly.
Liberty laid two goose eggs to open conference play. First, nearly getting run off the field in Boiling Springs against Gardner-Webb. The Flames fell behind 20-0, and was outgained on the ground 265-60, before narrowing the margin to 7 entering the 4th quarter. A late Zac Parker fumbled punt return which led to a 5-yard Runnin’ Bulldogs touchdown sealed the Flames’ fate as they fell to 0-1 to open conference play.
We all thought the one game struggle would be concealed to just that, one game. We were wrong. Facing virtual elimination from the Big South championship, Liberty’s offense again failed to put points on the board early in the game, this time not scoring until the 4th quarter. Monmouth led 7-0, entering the final 15 minutes when both offenses decided to wake up. After a John Lunsford field goal early in the stanza, the Flames scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes of the game to take a 17-14 lead. Disaster avoided. Momentarily.
The Hawks responded by going 62 yards on 10 plays in 1 minute and 11 seconds setting up a 35-yard field goal to force overtime. Liberty got the ball to start the first overtime period and faced a 4th and 2 decision at the 17-yard line. Perhaps due to Lunsford’s struggles this season, Coach Gill elected to go for it. The option play, which everyone saw coming, was unsuccessful, and Monmouth was able to win the game with a 37-yard field goal on their next possession.
Woodrum’s opening remarks in his press conference following the two losses were addressed to Flames Nation: “I think, personally, that whoever is doing Flames Nation, if you’re going to be disrespectful to my team, my coaches, and my players, I respect your opinion, but if it’s going to be disrespectful to us, you might as well keep your comments to yourself.”
“As far as I’m concerned, this season’s not over,” Woodrum went on to say in the same press conference. “We have these games left and we’re going to win every single one of them. We’re going to be 7-4. We’re going to go to the playoffs. We’re going to have three wins over top 25 teams, have an FBS win and it doesn’t really matter to me what other people think. That’s how I’m going for the rest of the season. I don’t care what everyone else on the outside is saying. We’re going to go to the playoffs this year and we’ll be 7-4.”
5 of first 7 games away from Williams Stadium
You’ve heard us mention it before, but the 2015 nonconference schedule was arguably the toughest nonconference schedule in school history. The Flames’ faced 2 FBS opponents, an FCS power, a Missouri Valley team, and no Division II opponents. Throw in 4 straight road games, and 5 of the first 7 games being on the road, and the schedule was daunting in September and October. Finishing 3-2 in the nonconference was an impressive feat, but the Flames lost all of the progress gained by dropping consecutive conference games to Gardner-Webb and Monmouth. Losing one of those could be overcome, but losing both likely puts Liberty in too big of a hole to climb out of to reach the FCS Playoffs for the 2nd straight season.
Flames get back on track for homecoming
Perhaps a new rivalry was born in front of another 20,000+ crowd at Williams Stadium when Liberty got back in the win column, beating Kennesaw State, 45-35. KSU and their fans picked up on Woodrum’s “guarantee” of a win and rallied behind it as bulletin board material. One backup linebacker for the Owls even tweeted “can’t wait to get on the field and ruin Liberty’s homecoming in front of 20,000 of their fans.”
With Coastal Carolina leaving the Big South to join the Sun Belt, it leaves a big opening in the conference rival category for the Flames. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that spot is quickly filled by KSU. They have a decent sized fan base, and, evidenced by this past week, they like to talk. And their program has to be taken seriously. I expect them competing for the Big South Championship as soon as next year.
Liberty is 4-4 entering the final stretch.
4-4 is not where we wanted to be at this point, and it puts the possibility for the playoffs extremely low. But the final 3 weeks of the season will determine how we all look back on the 2015 football season.
After the bye week, the Flames host 1-6 Presbyterian. Despite their record and 0-2 start to Big South play, they played both Coastal and Charleston Southern very close, losing by a combined 10 points. Liberty should win, but a close margin should be expected.
Final 2 games are against top 20 teams
We have all had the season finale against Coastal Carolina circled on the schedule since the schedule came out, actually since the 2014 season finished, but don’t look past the Charleston Southern game the week prior.
The Buccaneers are 6-1 on the season. They beat Monmouth and Gardner-Webb by a combined score of 71-7. Their only loss is to FBS Troy. Oh, and they beat the Flames in Lynchburg a season ago. Coach Jamey Chadwell has his team poised to win the Big South Championship and make the FCS playoffs for the first time in school history. They are 24-8 in Chadwell’s 3 seasons at CSU, and are currently ranked #19 in the Coaches’ poll.
There has been some excitement let out of the Coastal game with Liberty’s 2 conference losses, but it will still be an amazing atmosphere. There will still be 20,000+ in attendance. It’s still on ESPNU. Coastal is still ranked #1 in the country. They are still going to the Sun Belt.
Finish the season with 4 straight wins, including 2 over top 20 teams and one of those on ESPNU, and we will all feel better about the 2015 season. No, the season will not meet the very high expectations placed on it, but it’s much better than the alternative of finishing 5-6 or 6-5 and not having bragging rights over the Chanticleers.