In a second consecutive game on the road against an ACC opponent, the game came down to the right leg of walk-on kicker Alex Barbir. Two weeks ago in Blacksburg, he came through with a 51-yard game winning field goal with one second remaining on the clock. Tonight, in Raleigh, his 39-yard field goal attempt was blocked as Liberty lost, 15-14.
This marks #21 Liberty’s first loss of the season and brings to end a 10-game winning streak dating back to last season. It was the second longest active winning streak in the country, trailing only Notre Dame. The Flames fall to 8-1 on the season and 2-1 against ACC opponents this season, while the Wolfpack improve to 6-3.
Liberty quarterback Malik Willis entered the game drawing darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate discussion after putting up jaw-dropping stats throughout the season. In the Flames’ first game under the lights this season, Willis had his worst performance as a collegiate starting quarterback. He finished the game completing just 13 of 32 passes for 172 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions after entering the game with just one interception all season. He added 44 rushing yards on 15 carries.
“They are by far the most athletic team that we have played,” said Freeze. “They’re healthy, they got all their kids back, number one, that middle linebacker is a first rounder. He gave us fits all night. I don’t know if we blocked him all night. They were very athletic at every position. The gaps on Malik closed extremely fast. I thought we had a couple shot plays, we run the routes, and the ball just hung in the air a lot. His fundamentals were a little jittery, throwing off his back foot some tonight. He hasn’t really experienced this type of pressure. He’s hurting. I’m hurting because I don’t feel like I helped him enough, but, man, you go toe to toe with a team in the ACC that I think’s one of the top 3 or 4 talented teams in that group and had a chance to win it. I’m proud of them for that, but it does sting.”
The Flames took a 14-9 lead into the 4th quarter where Hugh Freeze and Liberty were looking to drive the field, eat up some clock, and put some points on the board to make it a two score game. Liberty had the ball with over 9 minutes left in the game. With Willis and the Flames facing a 3rd and 8 from the team’s own 20-yard line, Willis’ pass to the left side of the field was jumped and intercepted by the NC State defender at the 26.
The Liberty defense, which was lights out in the second half, was unable to keep the Wolfpack out of the end zone on the short field. NC State took the lead six plays later, 15-14. Their two-point conversion was unsuccessful.
When Liberty got the ball back, Willis threw his third interception of the game on the second play of the drive. It was a double move route by the running back Shedro Louis who was motioned out wide, and Willis’ ball was thrown on Louis’ inside shoulder and it hung in the air.
“We will have to go study it and see,” Freeze said of Willis’ interceptions. “Kent (Austin) will work really hard at it with him on looking at what happened tonight.”
The Flames’ defense was able to hold once again, forcing a three out, and Willis and the offense got the ball back at their own 8 yard line with 4:12 to play. This time, Willis engineered a Liberty drive to get the Flames in field goal range. First, he found Johnny Huntley to pick up 15 yards. Then, CJ Daniels was found open for a 12 yard gain and another first down. The big play came when Willis found Noah Frith for a 27 yard gain to move the Flames to the NC State 26 yard line.
At that point, Freeze and the Flames slowed it down and began to play for a field goal. Three runs for five yards set up Alex Barbir for a 39 yard field goal where he would attempt to win a second game in three weeks with his right leg. This time, his kick was blocked, and NC State would run out the clock to seal the win.
“We talked about in on the headsets and felt like he earned that right,” Freeze said of settling for the field goal. “Obviously, now maybe we should have been more aggressive, but we gave ourselves a chance to win it there with him. I have to see the film to see exactly, but the kick looked really low.”
The first 28 minutes of the game did not go exactly to script for the Flames, but the team was able to keep it a one possession game before the Flames scored a touchdown to tie the score at 7 entering the locker room. NC State had three red zone trips in the opening half, but only were able to score on one of those possessions. The Wolfpack had a missed field goal on its first drive and threw an interception on their third red zone possession following a 13-yard loss on a botched snap.
The Wolfpack were leading in total yards, 209-57, at that point of the game. Liberty took over following the interception by Cedric Stone with just over two minutes remaining in the first half. Malik Willis, who had struggled greatly to that point, engineered a 10 play, 84 yard drive which ended in a 12-yard touchdown pass from Willis to Noah Frith to tie the score at the end of the first half, giving the Flames all the momentum heading into the locker room.
“Something special is happening here at Liberty, in our football program,” Freeze said that he told his team in the locker room after the game. “We have a lot to play for. I hurt for you, I hurt with you. We’ve got a short week to get back on the field and try to get our 9th win and then go play a top 25 team to end the regular season. There’s still a lot to play for. Our kids understand that, they will be ready. We just don’t like the feeling of losing a game that we felt like we had a chance to win.”
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics