In a game that was decided on the final play, the Liberty Flames (3-1) came up on the wrong side of this one as the Syracuse Orange (3-1) pick up the win. Andre Szmyt drilled home a 35-yard field goal with just one second remaining in the game to give the Orange a 24-21 victory.
With the loss, the Flames drop their first game of the season and fall to 15-2 over their past 17 games with both losses coming by a combined four points against ACC opponents NC State and Syracuse.
“It hurts. It stings,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said following the loss. “Our kids fought for 60 minutes. That’s a good football team. Congratulations to Dino, I know it meant a lot to him to win this one, but man it just stings. We didn’t play our best. The noise rattled us in the first half. It was a lot louder than I thought it would be.”
After falling behind 14-0 and 21-7, the first time Liberty has trailed by more than seven points in a game since Nov. 23, 2019, the Flames rallied behind star quarterback Malik Willis to tie the game at 21 early in the fourth quarter. The Liberty defense would stand tall on the next two drives, forcing two punts, part of a streak of four consecutive Syracuse drives that ended in a punt in the second half. It gave Willis and the Liberty offense two opportunities to take the team’s first lead of the game.
On the first opportunity, Willis and TJ Green combined for 11 yards on two run plays to pick up a first down to begin the drive. Willis would then connect with CJ Daniels for a catch and run that went 35 yards and moved Liberty into the Syracuse red zone. Two more Green runs and a Syracuse penalty set the Flames up with first and goal at the four yard line with just over nine minutes to play.
On first down, Willis found Demario Douglas in the end zone as he fell to the ground on a play that was originally called a touchdown. After review, it was determined that Douglas came down with the ball but his feet were out of bounds. Following runs by Green and Willis that each picked up less than a yard, Freeze faced a decision on 4th and goal inside the three yard line.
Perhaps recollecting on Alex Barbir’s missed 36-yard field goal on Liberty’s first drive of the game and his struggles early in the season, Freeze decided to go for it on 4th down after calling a timeout. He put the ball in the hands of his best player, but Syracuse was waiting on Malik Willis and wrapped him up for a loss of one as the Flames turned the ball over on downs.
“Analytics said go, for sure,” Freeze said of his decision. “We’ve been iffy on our short field goals for sure. Analytics said go. Obviously, I would like to have the call over again, when it doesn’t work. I felt like we would get it in our best player’s hands. They probably knew that too. We ran speed option to the boundary. They strung it out pretty good and Malik turned it up pretty quick. I will have to see the film and see if that was the right decision.”
The Orange took over and handed it to running back Sean Tucker, who finished the game with 31 carries for 168 yards, on three straight plays to pick up a first down. On the third play, Tucker was drilled by Liberty linebacker Storey Jackson, forcing the explosive running back to the sideline. The Flames’ defense took advantage and stopped Syracuse on the next three plays, forcing another punt.
Liberty took over at their own 27 yard line, and everyone watching from the Carrier Dome and on the ACC Network, wanted to see what Willis could do with a tie game and just 4:21 left in the game. On the first play of the drive, he scrambled for 10 yards and a first down. On the following play, he was pressured on his drop back and began to scramble away from the pocket. He stopped and went to pass the ball, but was hit from behind just before he was able to get rid of the ball and the ball bounced out of his grips. Syracuse was able to recover the fumble, not only Willis’ first turnover of the season but Liberty’s first offensive turnover through four games, at the Flames’ 30 yard line.
Syracuse was able to run out the clock, picking up one first down, and moving the ball to the Liberty 17-yard line, setting up Szmyt’s game winning field goal.
With about 30 NFL scouts on hand, Willis finished the game 14 of 19 passing for three touchdowns. He added 50 rushing yards on 16 carries and even recorded his first career reception for 13 yards.
“I decided to go for it there at the end, thought we could punch it in,” Freeze said. “I’ll second guess all of that because certainly it didn’t go our way tonight. Way too many penalties. We struggled to stop the run, but we settled in nicely in the second half defensively. I thought offensively we did some good things in the second half, but just hurt for our kids. It’s part of life. It’s part of sports. It’s part of team. We will find out how we rebound, feels like it’s been a while.”
Liberty will remain on the road and head back to Alabama to take on the University of Alabama-Birmingham next Saturday, Oct. 2. Kickoff from Birmingham is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EST and will be televised on CBS Sports Network. UAB is currently 2-1 on the season and play at Tulane on Saturday night.
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics