It’s been over four years since Liberty and Coastal Carolina met on the gridiron, but the former Big South Conference rivals will renew their acquaintances on Saturday in Conway, South Carolina.
The Flames and Chanticleers were the two premier athletic departments in the Big South for two decades. From 1998 through 2016, Liberty (12) and Coastal Carolina (7) combined to win all 19 of the Big South Sasser Cups which went to the top athletic department in the conference.
The domination of the FCS conference was the same in football as either Liberty or Coastal Carolina won at least a share of the Big South Conference football championship every year from 2004 through 2014 except one season. The series between the two programs could not be any closer, as the two programs have split the 14 previous meetings, twice needing multiple overtimes to settle the score (2005, 2013) with the total score having just 9 points separating the two in the series (Liberty outscoring Coastal 433-424). Three of the last four meetings have been decided by three points or fewer.
“Coastal was one of those rivals that we always got up for,” Liberty alum and former football star Gabe Henderson said. “We wore the black jerseys against them in 2011. Coastal was always the team that I always hated, just from when I got to Liberty until today. 11 years later, I still hate that school.”
The birth of the modern era of Liberty football began prior to the 2006 football season when former Virginia assistant coach Danny Rocco was named Flames’ head football coach. When he took over in Lynchburg, the Flames were coming off a 1-10 campaign in 2005 and the Chanticleers were the top dog in the Big South. Coastal three-peated as Big South Champions from 2004-2006. Danny Rocco made it clear from the beginning that Coastal was the team to beat if Liberty wanted to win a conference championship and the “Beat Coastal” theme was born. Any Liberty student around during that time, probably has a handful of Liberty red “Beat Coastal” t-shirts still hanging around. It was the commencement of the most heated rivalry Liberty football has ever had.
In Rocco’s first game against the Chanticleers in 2006, his 3-5 Flames’ team were huge underdogs against the 6-2 Chanticleers, but Liberty kept it close, losing by a final margin of 28-26. Liberty made a statement at Brooks Stadium in Conway that October day. They would be a force to be reckoned with in the Big South moving forward.
In 2007, the tides turned. Behind Rashad Jennings’ 172 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, Liberty knocked off the three-time defending champs, 37-24. That game would be the launching point to four straight Big South Championship seasons for the Flames. Liberty was 4-2 against Coastal under Rocco, winning four of the final five matchups after the 2006 loss.
From Danny Rocco’s tenure forward, the Liberty-Coastal Carolina game was circled on the calendar by every coach, player, and fan each season. From 2013-2015, the Flames and Chanticleers met when Coastal was a top 5 nationally ranked FCS team and provided perhaps the three most memorable games in the series history.
“Back then, the Coastal game was the reason why we couldn’t make the playoffs,” Henderson explained. “We always knew if we beat Coastal, you give yourselves a chance to make the playoffs. Rocco, he really drove that into us. He was one of those coaches that you would literally run through a wall for.”
The 2013 game played in Lynchburg, was decided in double overtime where the undefeated and No. 4 Chanticleers outlasted the Flames, 55-52, thanks to a blocked John Lunsford 40-yard field goal to seal the win. That was after Coastal overcome a 19-point deficit late in the 3rd quarter.
“They rushed the field,” Henderson said of Coastal following that game his junior season. “There’s a picture of me after they rushed the field, I’m on one knee looking at them cheering on the field, I was looking at them storming my field thinking next year we’re going to get them. I will never forget this.”
The following year, Liberty traveled to South Carolina to take on 11-0 and No. 1 ranked Coastal Carolina. The winner would clinch the Big South’s auto-bid to the FCS Playoffs. The Chanticleers were again big favorites as Liberty had to turn to backup quarterback Stephon Masha after Josh Woodrum was injured a couple weeks prior. The Flames would pull the upset in dramatic fashion as Lunsford nailed a 32-yard field goal with 1:20 to play, and Coastal’s Alex Catron’s 24 yard field goal was blocked by Chima Uzowihe on the final play of the game. Turner Gill and the Flames would advance to the FCS Playoffs for the first time in school history.
“Stephon probably completed 10 passes all week,” Henderson said of the practices leading into the Coastal game. “We literally changed the entire offense for that game.”
Henderson and Masha were on the same page all afternoon. Henderson led the team in receiving with 10 catches for 114 yards, including several crucial third down conversions. When Coastal lined up for the field goal on the final play, he said he walked to the other end of the field, unable to watch the final kick.
“There was a Coastal fan,” Henderson recalled. “He was like, ‘Hey, number 10, not this year buddy, not this year.'”
Henderson turned his back to the kick, heard the foot hit the ball, turned around and saw the Liberty sideline going crazy following the block.
“That’s still one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my life, that’s still at the top.”
In 2015, Liberty and No. 4 Coastal played on Thursday night on ESPNews. Thanks to a 40 yard touchdown pass from Woodrum to BJ Farrow in the final two minutes, the Flames would get the upset once again, 24-21.
It’s been a great rivalry, with plenty of ups and downs on both sides, but Saturday’s meeting will be the biggest in the series’ history. For the first time the two are meeting both as ranked teams. In the previous 15 meetings, on nine occasions either Liberty or Coastal was ranked, obviously at the FCS level, but never were both ranked. That streak ends this season when No. 14 Coastal Carolina hosts No. 25 Liberty in the first ever meeting between the two at the FBS level and first meeting between the pair since 2016. Oh, and did you hear? ESPN’s College GameDay will be broadcasting live from Conway ahead of the showdown.
Liberty (9-1) and Coastal Carolina (9-0) enter the game as two of only four 9-2 in football teams in the country, along side Notre Dame (9-0) and BYU (9-0). Coastal is currently riding a 10-game overall winning streak and has won 6 straight at home and will meet a Liberty team unbeaten for the third time in the series history. In 2013, a 6-0 Coastal Carolina team defeated Liberty, 55-52, in two overtimes, and then a No. 1 ranked and 11-0 Coastal Carolina lost to Liberty in the regular season finale in 2014, 15-14, when Chima Uzowihe blocked the Chanticleer field goal attempt on the final play of the game to send the Flames to the FCS Playoffs for the first time in school history.
The two head coaches will be coaching their team for the first time in this rivalry as Liberty’s Hugh Freeze and Coastal’s Jamey Chadwell are getting acquainted with the rivalry this week. Freeze said he would meet with former Liberty football players and current staff members Matt Bevins and Kyle DeArmon this week to get a “tutorial” on the rivalry. Freeze is no stranger to rivalries as he was a part of one of he most heated one in all of college football between Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
“Because it’s heated, I’ve never seen that help you win, ever,” Freeze said. “I’ve only seen it hurt you. So, I don’t need this to be a rival game to get my juices flowing. It’s a top 25 matchup, a chance for us to win 10 games. I will get educated on it, but I will be very disappointed if our kids let this get to their emotions to where they are not poised. I would think Coach Chadwell would feel the same. His team is very disciplined, one of the fewest penalized teams in America.”
Chadwell has a little bit more of a history with the Liberty-Coastal rivalry as he was the head coach at Big South member Charleston Southern from 2013-2016 during the heyday of the Flames-Chanticleers series. He’s been at Coastal since 2017, but he has never faced Liberty while with the Chanticleers. Chadwell was 3-1 against Liberty during his time at CSU, but Saturday’s game will have much more meaning than any previous meeting.
“From afar, you always knew the game between Coastal and Liberty was always for something important,” Chadwell said this week of the rivalry. “It was always a big game and I think there probably for the majority of the time it decided really who was going to win the league or get an at-large bid. There was always something with that game that there was always a lot of build up to it and always whoever was going to win that game had a chance to win the championship and go on into the playoffs. It was always big. Obviously not knowing the inner workings of it being at another institution, but as soon as I got here, I knew real quick how our university felt about Liberty and how Liberty felt about our university.”
The Liberty Flames, who have achieved a number of program firsts under second year head coach Hugh Freeze will be looking to notch another one on Saturday. The Flames have never beaten an FBS Top 25 opponent and Saturday’s game will be the first Liberty has ever played in between two FBS Top 25 teams. At No. 14, Coastal will be the highest ranked FBS opponent the Flames have ever faced and only third ever. It will also be the first time Liberty has ever faced a Top 25 FBS opponent outside of a season opener. The Flames kicked off the 2014 season at No. 23 North Carolina and began the 2019 season by hosting No. 22 Syracuse.
“All that pushing and shoving that happens in these rival games before the game and in the first minute of the game, all the chit chat, and all that stuff, after about 2 minutes when you get hit right in the face, all that kind of just subsides and you might ought to worry about executing on the given play and the game plan much more than you do that,” said Freeze. “The fans will still yell back and forth and do what they do, and the media will write about it being a rivalry, but it’s a rivalry to me because top 25 teams playing in a game that means something. I won’t make much of, I’ll make much of this opportunity is big, but whether it’s Coastal or whether it was whoever, it would mean that to me.”