It’s Senior day as Liberty says goodbye to a historic senior class who in their 4 years of FBS football have attained a record of 31-16, 2 bowl games (so far), a memorable 10 win season, and have never once had a season with a losing record. What they have accomplished is simply incredible and while this season might not have turned out exactly the way fans or the team had hoped, what they have accomplished overall is truly amazing and they all deserve to be loudly applauded as they play their last game at Williams Stadium.
While overall the unit can look back with pride on what they’ve done, Liberty has stumbled down the stretch this season with 3 losses in their last 5 games. Liberty wants to end senior night the right way and getting to 8-4 with a bowl game in the wings would still be a huge accomplishment, but standing in their way is an Army team who is 7-3 with two very close losses to two Power 5 teams in Wisconsin and #18 Wake Forrest. Liberty’s defense has been fantastic of late but will face an offense that averages over 400 yards and 35 points per game. Liberty will need their defense to step up once again but that won’t be enough if the offense can’t get out of the rut it has fallen into the last two games.
1. TRUST YOUR TEAMMATES
The option offense is one of the most difficult to defend against because it’s not one that teams prepare for on a regular basis. With so many moving parts it’s easy to get confused and mistakes to start compounding as the game literally runs away from you. The only way to stop this offensive style is to play disciplined assignment football. Everyone is assigned to one player in the attack. Someone is assigned to the QB, one is assigned to the FB and one is assigned to the pitch-man (or men). On defense, you don’t worry about who has the ball or what the other players in the formation are doing, you just focus on going and hitting your assigned man every single time whether he has the ball or not. A properly operating defense should see the FB, QB, and HB all on their butts every single play. It sounds simple but it’s incredibly difficult to execute because you not only have to be disciplined, but you also have to be able to trust that your teammates have their assignments covered and just focus on getting your guy. Liberty’s defense has performed admirably against a multitude of tests this season, but this might be the toughest one they have faced yet. A lot will be learned about the mental discipline and trust that this unit has in each other in Saturday’s game.
This key isn’t just about the defense, however. One of the main reasons that Liberty has been struggling down the stretch is that Willis has increasingly tried to take the game into his own hands and win it all by himself. He’s pushing the ball into places he shouldn’t, throwing into double and sometimes triple coverage in almost desperation heaves to make the big play, dancing around and not taking his check-downs or short-run opportunities, and frankly playing like every play is a do or die moment. In the last 5 games, Willis has thrown 8 out of his 11 season picks and taken 27 sacks (60% of the sacks he’s taken on the season). As noted, in that span Liberty has won 2/5 games. Not all of it is Willis’ fault as he has been hampered by a porous offensive line and questionable (to say the least) play calling, but a good number of those sacks were taken because he held onto the ball for far too long trying to make the miracle play happen, and most of the picks are because he let go of the ball hoping the miracle play was happening. Willis is obviously the best player on the field and Liberty’s best hope to win, but if Liberty wants to win this crucial final regular-season matchup, he is going to have to start trusting his team more and not trying to do it all himself.
2. DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE PASS
With the option, if the D-line and linebackers are having issues stopping the run it is almost impossible for the secondary players to stop themselves from starting to creep up to the line. Unfortunately, that’s right when the offense will hit you with a surprise pass over the top that ends up going for a 50+ yard score. Army doesn’t throw the ball very much, but when they do they find success. Army has a 179-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Wake Forest and 214-yard game against Air Force. Liberty will have to avoid getting sucked up to the line no matter how many times Army runs the ball down their throat if they want to avoid the huge momentum-shifting plays over the top.
3. SLOW THE GAME DOWN
The option offense is slow and methodical and the longer the game goes on the harder it becomes to stop because honestly you just get gassed and with young teams like LU without significant depth in key positions that can spell disaster. Army averages 36:50 minutes time of possession per game and Liberty’s defense is going to be on the field a lot. Liberty is going to need to focus on taking their time, running the clock, and extending drives so as to give the defense a chance to catch their breathe. This doesn’t mean LU can’t use up-tempo throughout the game to catch Army off guard, and if Liberty is down in the second half quick drives will be important because possession opportunities will be limited, but especially in the first half (and in the second if LU has the lead) the longer they can make their drives last the more time the defense will have to rest and the better chance they’ll have of keeping up with Army all game.
I’m not going to try to sugarcoat this, Liberty is outmatched in this game. For some reason Vegas and ESPN have Liberty favored but I think we all know few people from ESPN or the sports world in general watches Liberty play or even really acknowledge their existence (that was pretty obvious at the Cure Bowl last year vs Coastal). Army has a potent and tested offense with a play style unlike anything Liberty has seen this year. Additionally, Liberty offensively is really struggling to finish in the big matchups down the stretch. It’s not just Army’s offense either as their defense is holding teams to almost 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game!
It’s senior day, Liberty has nothing to lose, and Hugh Freeze is riding high off of a mega-contract extension so maybe Liberty will find the extra juice to get them out of this slump and back to being the creative and explosive offensive team we all know they can be. The fan side of me is calling for the win in this one, but the analyst side of me thinks this will be a loss.
However, the one thing that may give Liberty the extra boost needed to get this win on senior night is a packed-out, max-capacity Williams Stadium crowd! This game is unfortunately on the back-end of break, so most students are likely to still be out of town, so it is up to the community to step up in this one. These seniors have fought so hard to set Liberty out on the right footing in this new FBS era for the Flames and they have more than earned the right to go out with a packed crowd on senior night. If you live anywhere within driving distance of the stadium on Saturday I am calling for you to be there! I personally will be flying in from Florida and then driving 3.5 hours to be there for this team and these seniors. Fans and crowd noise plays a crucial role in a team’s on-field success and we can help our team get this win! Ignore my final score prediction in this one because that’s just a stupid analytical guess, the real score has yet to be written and we can get our team across the finish line in style! Rise with us!!!
SCORE PREDICTION: Army 31 vs Liberty 21
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point