The Liberty Flames (7-5) were overpowered by the Army Black Knights (8-3) on Saturday afternoon, 31-16 in front of 19,269 fans on a cold day at Williams Stadium. It is Liberty’s third straight loss after beginning the season at 7-2. It was Senior Day, as 25 student-athlets were honored prior to the game.
“First, to our seniors, they’ve left this place better than they’ve found it,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said. “They were great caretakers. I hate, more than I can put into words, that they are ending the regular season with two losses at home. We’ve got to evaluate everything that’s going on in our program. It’s my job to get that fixed. Certainly, we had a lot of chances to make plays early in the game, and we didn’t. Probably shouldn’t have gone for it on 4th down that first time, but I just knew our possessions were probably going to be limited in the game. I love the way our kids fought in the second half. I think we’ve got to hold ourselves to a higher standard so that we quit having some of these lapses and that starts with me holding everyone accountable.”
The Flames turned the ball over on downs on each of its first four possessions, giving the Black Knights a short field on each of its first four drives. Army’s worst starting field position on its first four possessions was it’s own 45 yard line. They would take advantage, scoring on its first four drives to take a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Liberty got the ball to begin the game, and after moving the ball to midfield, Malik Willis’ pass on 4th and 10 from the Army 49 yard line intended for Kevin Shaa fell incomplete. The Black Knights would turn that short field into a 26-yard field goal to take the 3-0 lead.
The Flames’ would again move the ball to midfield, facing a 4th and 1 on their own 47 yard line. Liberty’s offense would remain on the field, but center Thomas Sargeant was whistled for a false start, backing the offense up five yards. Freeze sent the punt team onto the field, but, for the first time in his Liberty tenure, he called on a fake punt. Punter Max Morgan’s pass would be intercepted and Army would take over at the Liberty 45.
Army would pick up a first down with a conversion on 4th and 1, and then a play-action pass would lead to a wide open 34-yard touchdown pass. Liberty would again move the ball across midfield, to the Army 40, when Willis would be sacked for a 16 yard loss on 4th and 7. Five plays later and the Flames trailed 17-0. The next possession, the Flames would reach the Army 45 yard line where Willis’ pass on 4th and 5 would fall incomplete as Liberty opened the game failing on its first four fourth down conversion attempts.
Liberty would convert its fifth fourth down conversion and it would set up a 36-yard Brayden Beck field goal to get the Flames on the board, trailing 24-3 entering the halftime break.
Receiving the second half kickoff, Army would attempt to deliver the knockout punch with a soul-crushing, 14 play, 8 minute and 15 second touchdown drive as the Black Knights took a commanding 31-3 lead.
“I thought the second half, I wish we could have come out and got a stop,” Freeze stated. “I thought that would have been huge. That drive is really the one that really stung. Other than that, I thought they played hard and played solid.”
The Flames would battle back and make things interesting in the fourth quarter as Liberty scored two touchdowns in the third quarter, to bring the score within 31-16. Liberty did attempt to go for two on its second touchdown of the game, failing, to stay behind 15 points instead of two touchdowns.
Liberty would get the ball back with 9:20 left in the game, trailing by 15. The Flames would move the ball into Army territory, as Willis connected with CJ Daniels on 4th and 8 to move to the 25. The drive would end there as Willis threw four incomplete passes as Liberty turned it over on downs for the fifth time on the day. Demario Douglas dropped a pass in the end zone on third down that should have been a touchdown to bring the Flames within one score with just over five minutes left in the game.
After having an average starting field position on the Liberty 45 yard line on its first four drives, Army finished the game with six consecutive possessions that started on either their own 26 or 25 yard line. On its first four possessions, the Black Knights scored 24 points. On its following six drives, Liberty would hold Army to seven points.
“When you play with them, if you give them short fields, you’re either going to stop them or hopefully they score in lesser amounts of times unlike that first drive of the second half,” said Freeze. “It’s not so much about field position as you’re playing them as it is can we stop them or not. Truthfully, had it not been for those two explosive passes I’m not sure how many points they would have had in the first half because I thought we did a decent job against the run game, even on the short fields.”
Malik Willis would finish the game 24 of 45 passing for 305 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. His favorite receiver was CJ Daniels who had a career-high eight receptions to go with 118 yards. Kevin Shaa added four receptions for 76 yards. Noah Frith finished the game with three receptions for 31 yards and one touchdown.
Joshua Mack was Liberty’s top rusher with seven carries for 38 yards. Willis carried the ball 16 times for 37 yards and a touchdown. TJ Green had two carries for four yards.
Liberty’s regular season comes to an end as the Flames will now hope for a bowl invite for a third straight season. Bowl invitations will begin to go out in the coming days with all game matchups finalized by next Sunday, Dec. 5.
“I’m so glad that we don’t end it like this, that we have a bowl game to go to,” said Freeze. “Can’t wait to hear where we’re going, don’t care, just want to play again, as soon as we can.”