Liberty (7-3) fell behind early against No. 15 Ole Miss (7-2), trailing 24-0 at halftime. The deficit was too much to overcome, as the Flames fell to the Rebels, 27-14 in Hugh Freeze’s return to Oxford, Mississippi.
“You look at the first downs and the stats and everything, the game should have been closer,” Coach Freeze said. “We just made way too many mistakes, whether it was a dropped ball here, turnover here, or a holding call. To beat a team that is as talented as Ole Miss, you can’t with those many mistakes.”
The Flames had their opportunities throughout the game, but was unable to capitalize, particularly in the first half. After Ole Miss took an early 7-0 lead thanks to a 70 yard touchdown run on the second play of the game, Liberty’s offense was able to drive the ball to the 30-yard line. The drive would stall as Malik Willis was sacked on two consecutive plays to force a punt. That would become a reoccurring theme throughout the day as Willis was sacked a season-high 9 times on the afternoon.
On its next possession, Liberty would get into the red zone, all the way to the 12-yard line. The drive would again end with a third down sack that set up a 38-yard Brayden Beck field goal. He would miss the kick wide left. The Rebels would push its lead to 17-0 moving deep into the second quarter with Liberty driving. The Flames reached the Ole Miss 25 yard line before Willis would be intercepted with 2:55 left in the first half. The Rebels would punch in a touchdown before halftime to take a commanding 24-0 lead into the intermission.
“Whether it was the missed field goal or something that killed a drive or a turnover, I’m going to be sick,” said Freeze. “If we come into half getting possession, down two scores you feel a little better. We didn’t play well enough in the first half.”
Willis was sacked seven times in the first half, the most the Liberty offensive line had surrendered in a game all season. Entering the break, the Flames had been outscored by an SEC team 77-0 in its first six quarters against a team from the top conference in college football. Liberty lost to Auburn, 53-0, in 2018 under head coach Turner Gill in the program’s first ever game against a team from the SEC.
Coming out of the second half, the Flames offense focused on running the ball and found great success. Liberty was able to punch it into the end zone on the opening drive of the second half. Shedro Louis would scamper 28 yards for a touchdown. It brought the Flames within 24-7 and gave the team some hope.
The Rebels would counter with a field goal on its opening possession of the final 30 minutes to push its lead to 20, and Liberty’s offense continued to hit on all strides, scoring a touchdown to bring the score to 27-14. Willis would take the ball in from three yards out for the scoring play that capped an 11 play, 73 yard drive as the game went to the fourth quarter.
Liberty’s defense would stand strong in its own territory once again, forcing a 41 yard field goal by the Rebels which was no good. Starting to pick up some momentum, the Flames quickly moved the ball 34 yards on 5 plays to get into Ole Miss territory. Facing a 3rd and 5 at the 42 yard line, Willis attempted a pass to DJ Stubbs on a slant pass where the super senior receiver was open, but he was unable to haul it in. Liberty would go for it on 4th down, but Willis’ pass to Noah Frith would fall incomplete as the Flames turned it over on downs.
With the score still 27-14, Liberty was able to move the ball into Rebels territory once again, reaching the 39 yard line with 7 minutes left in the game. Willis would be sacked twice in three plays, the only two sacks of the second half, to end the Liberty threat as the Flames would have to punt on 4th and 23. Liberty would threaten again in the final two minutes of the game until Willis’ pass was intercepted, his third pick of the game, with one minute left, ending any hope of a Liberty win.
“You can only protect so many different ways, but somebody is going to be in a 1 on 1 unless you just want to leave 8 people in and only send 2 out then we probably could shore it up some, but probably hard to get people open,” Freeze said of the protection. “We just lost a bunch of 1 on 1s in the first half. They brought pressure, we were in some third and longs and they brought pressure. Schematically, trust me, we have looked at every pass protection there is, if you’re wanting to get some receivers out, I don’t know any more you can develop. You’ve got to win some 1 on 1s sometimes.”
The Flames would finish the game rushing for 284 yards at 5.2 yards per carry. Shedro Louis picked up 101 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on 7 carries. Joshua Mack toted the football 19 times for 98 yards. Malik Willis finished the game with 27 rushing attempts for 71 yards and a touchdown. The Liberty quarterback, with scouts from 16 different NFL teams in attendance, would complete 16 of 25 passing attempts for 173 yards and 3 interceptions. It was his third three-interception game of the season.
“We’re not into moral victories or anything, but I’ve always said when I got here that our goal every year is to compete on Saturdays and put our players and our university in a place to go to bowl games,” said Freeze. “When, you’re Independent, you get a few different types of schedules. This has been a very difficult schedule for us. I think our kids have competed and they certainly did today. Like I told them in the locker room, I’m as proud to walk out of the stadium with them today as I was when I walked in. Wish we would have played better in the first half. Wish I would have coached better in the first half. I would have loved to have gotten that thing to one score and let our kids have a chance there at the end.”
After playing 10 straight games without an open date, the Flames have their bye week this coming week. Following the bye, Liberty will round out the regular season with back-to-back home games against Louisiana and Army. The Ragin’ Cajuns make the trek to Lynchburg for a Nov. 20 game. Louisiana is currently 8-1 on the season following their 21-17 win over Georgia State on Thursday night. Louisiana will face Troy next Saturday.