The Liberty Flames (4-1) bounced back from a tough loss at Syracuse last week to defeat the UAB Blazers (3-2), 36-12 on Saturday night. The Flames’ spoiled the Blazers’ first ever game at Protective Stadium in Birmingham.
It took a little time to get going, but once the Flames found their stride, the route was on. Alabama-Birmingham took the lead on their opening possession with a field goal, and the Blazers had an opportunity to extend their lead on the following drive. UAB head coach Bill Clark opted to go for it on 4th and 5 at the Liberty 18 yard line instead of kicking the field goal. Quarterback Dylan Hopkins was ruled one yard short of the first down as he slid on the run.
UAB reached the Liberty red zone on its first two possessions, but the Blazers had to settle for just three points on those two drives. It was a huge turning point early in the game.
“I thought red zone defense, holding teams to field goals would be big in this game,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said. “I thought that was really big for our defense to rise up in those first two possessions and hold them to three points.”
Liberty was able to tie the game on their next possession following a 13 play, 82 yard drive that ended at the UAB 2 yard line. Kicker Brayden Beck made his Liberty debut and nailed the 21 yard field goal. That would be the score as the game entered halftime.
From that point on, the Flames took over and seized control of the game. Once in control of the game, the 37,167 fans in attendance at Protective Stadium were quieted and eventually made their way to the exits after a dominating 3rd quarter by Malik Willis and the Flames.
The Blazers, who had not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, was unable to corral Willis as he rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on his 15 carries in the game. With NFL scouts from the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets in attendance, the first round projected quarterback completed 13 of 19 passes for 287 yards and another touchdown.
Frequently throughout the evening, Willis was seen running all over the Protective Stadium artificial turf surface eluding UAB defenders. Willis and Liberty would score touchdowns on four of its first five possessions in the second half. Meanwhile, the Liberty defense stiffened in the third quarter, forcing four consecutive three and outs for UAB’s offense to begin the game. The Blazers were held to -1 yard of offense in the third quarter. Entering the fourth quarter, Liberty led 24-3, a lead that would grow to 36-3 before the Blazers finished with the final 9 points of the game.
“Just such a great kid,” Freeze said of his quarterback following the game. “He’s an incredible leader and student-athlete, humble and talented. That pretty much sums it up. There’s a lot of times you think you’re going to struggle to get it in against them because they are really good defensively. I just decided any time I got in the red zone again I was going to stay in some spread sets and give him some opportunities to run and some opportunities to throw. He’s the best player on the field. That doesn’t take smart coaching, just put it in his hands.”
Led by Willis, Liberty rushed for 213 yards on 39 carries. That’s by far the most yards UAB has surrendered on the ground through the first five games of the season. Previously, Georgia rushed for 163 yards on the Blazers in their 56-7 win. North Texas also rushed for 121 yards while Jacksonville State and Tulane failed to eclipse the 100 yard rushing mark. The Flames are now 18-0 under Freeze when out-rushing their opponent.
“I was really proud,” Freeze said of his ground game. “Nobody has (run the ball on UAB), just look at the stats. While Malik got a lot of the yards, I thought J-Mack, in particular, got the dirty yards that we needed. The tough, hard-nosed four yard runs that put you in 2nd and 6 make all the difference in the world for a play caller. I was proud of him. I thought Shedro (Louis) gave us a little spark there too. Obviously, our OLine took the challenge to heart. I challenged them last night at the hotel, if we out-rush them, we’re probably going to win the game.”
The Flames return home next week for the annual homecoming game against Middle Tennessee State. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Williams Stadium. The Blue Raiders improved to 2-3 on the season with a 34-28 win over Marshall on Saturday.