When Liberty steps onto the field Saturday they’ll be playing for the record books. If liberty wins, it will be the first time in FBS history that a team has attained a 10 win season, no losing records, and 3 bowl wins in its first 4 years in the FBS. It may not have been exactly the season Flame’s fans wanted and Liberty certainly didn’t end on a high note losing 4 out of their last 6 games, but the fact that Liberty is playing in their third bowl game in just their 4th year of FBS eligibility and a chance to make history should give fans some perspective of just how much this team has accomplished. Liberty may have had a rough end to the year, but a bowl win on ESPN (the first time the Flames will have played on the main channel of the ESPN network this season) in front of thousands of LU fans traveling to the game will give these historic seniors the send-off they deserve and Flames nation the right mindset going into the off-season.
1. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES IN THE RUN GAME
Liberty, like it or not, has been a pass-heavy offense this year and it is very apparent that Hugh Freeze does not like that. However, with an offensive line that has been ineffective at best and lacking a true power back this season, Liberty has struggled to get any of its three running backs going. The team’s leading running back the last two seasons, Joshua Mack, has shown some promise this season and I was hoping he might find his footing in the bowl game, but unconfirmed reports are now indicating that Mack will not be playing which leaves Liberty with TJ Green (who has 389 yards on the season) and Shedro Louis (who finished the year with 374).
Now given the issues in the run game this season and the questions surrounding the current status of the running back room, one might think that I would suggest Liberty try to avoid the run game as much as possible, but Eastern Michigan is especially porous against the run with 196.9 yards allowed on the ground per game. Additionally, Liberty has got to find a way to take pressure off of Willis who has been limited in his allusiveness and explosiveness down the stretch as defenses have started to figure out how to contain the dynamic Liberty QB (Willis has rushed for more than 40 yards only once in the last 5 games).
There are going to be opportunities in the run game and both Louis and Green have both shown the ability to make an impact (if not a consistent one) on the ground (both are averaging over 5 yards per carrying). Now, I’m not saying Liberty should abandon the pass and go to a run-first attack, but Liberty shouldn’t forget about it either and if they sprinkle it in enough (say 40% of the game snaps) it will force Eastern Michigan to adjust their coverage and maybe open up some opportunities deep.
2. ESTABLISH THE SHORT PASS
Now getting the ground game going will be important, but the game will be won or lost through the air just as it has been all season. The biggest issue right now with Liberty’s offense and the main reason Willis has taken 50 sacks on the year, is that Liberty doesn’t really have a quick/short passing game. If you watch the tape on Liberty the vast majority of their routes are longer developing 10+ yard routes. Freeze clearly wants to emphasize the deep ball but the truth is that neither Liberty’s O-line nor their receiver corps is built for that right now. Liberty’s O-line cant provide consistent pass protection to allow the deeper routes to develop and Liberty lacks true big target, big-play wide receivers on the outside (think AGG). 3 of Liberty’s top 4 wide receivers are sub 6’ (Daniels is 6’1’’) and their only true tall wideout, Frith, has struggled with injuries and only caught passes in 6 games.
What Liberty does have are speedy wide receivers who are great in the open field. Focusing on quick, 5-10 yard completions, screen passes, shallow hooks, quick outs, etc. will do three things: allow Willis to get into rhythm with his receivers and build momentum, defeat the blitz and make up for lack of time in the pocket and third, Force the secondary to cheat up and open up opportunities deep.
3. BOWL GAME CREATIVITY
It’s no secret that Liberty’s offense has lost a bit of its spark from last season and become a bit more predictable and conservative (especially in the first half). As I said in my last article I believe this is because Hugh Freeze is trying to work on installing fundamentals and consistency that will lead to the long-term success of the program. However, while that’s all fine during the season, now it’s bowl season. Liberty has nothing else left to play for and nothing left to lose. Hugh Freeze will have all offseason to work out kinks and establish groundwork, what the team (and fan base) needs right now is a dramatic infusion of the creativity and genius that made last season so magical.
Liberty wants people talking about this program through the off-season and into the pre-season because the more name awareness and pre-season hype, the better chances Liberty will have of climbing into the polls early, and for G5s where you start determines where you finish. Nobody, besides the teams and fans involved, will likely remember the score in this one, but what could get Liberty’s name tossed around the rest of bowl season and into the postseason is some sports center-worthy creative play-calling. Whether it’s trick plays, misdirections, RPOs, WR end around, you name it, Liberty needs to empty out the playbook and infuse some fire into this team, the fan base, and the media storylines as the team gets set for the long, long offseason.
Straight and simple, Liberty should be able to handle this team. LU has 5 losses but two of those are to current top 25 opponents, and third to a very good Army team. However, Liberty also lost to two teams that missed out on bowl season that they definitely should have beat but lost in the final minutes by a combined total loss differential of 6 points. Liberty has tended to play to the level of the opponent. Against now top 10 Ole Miss Liberty held their own and had multiple opportunities to win the game, however, Liberty also struggled against the likes of Troy, ULM, North Texas, and Syracuse. Eastern Michigan is actually a perfect opponent for LU because they are formidable enough for LU to come in prepared and bring their A-game but at the same time definitely beatable.
I think Liberty will come out hot and get on the scoreboard first as Willis and Co. look to erase the sour taste of the 3 game losing streak to end the year and finish out their season with a win. I do think LU will struggle to maintain momentum in the middle of the game, giving E-Michigan a chance to get back into it, before getting back on track in the final phase of the matchup to come away with Liberty’s third straight bowl win. Either way, I’m just happy I get to see my Flames play in person one more time! Hope to see you all there Flames Nation! Rise with us!
Score Prediction: Liberty 34 vs Eastern Michigan 21
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point
Psyched I get to use a p.s. in an article! Haven’t used one of these since I was like 12. The great Chad Hasson and I sat down and went through a video version of these keys to the game on my YouTube channel. Chad presented his own keys to the game and we also went more in-depth in the analysis as well as presenting series history, key players, etc. Most may not know this but in addition to being a passionate LU fan, I am also a dedicated Boise State fan, and my channel is dedicated to my other sports persona “Bronco Bleymaier” but bowl season gave me the perfect opportunity to combine my two great loves and bring my Flames onto the channel. Use the following link to access the video and make sure to listen to Chad’s weekly A Sea of Red podcast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaD7b12Qq-c