All season, Liberty has rode the back of Malik Willis. It has led to a program best start to begin the 2020 season as the Flames raced out to an 8-0 record and a top 25 national ranking. The former Auburn quarterback played in seven of the Flames’ first eight games, while completing 67.8% of his passes for 1,645 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He also was leading the team with 700 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns.
His play had him in conversation for a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate entering Liberty’s game Saturday night in Raleigh, North Carolina against the NC State Wolfpack. The Flames entered the game as a 4 point underdog, but many analysts and experts were predicting a Liberty victory to remain unbeaten.
Playing under the lights for the first time this season, Willis and the Liberty offense had their worst performance of the season. The Flames finished with just 14 points, tied for the second lowest point total under Hugh Freeze and the lowest with their head coach on the sideline after coaching from the press box in the Flames’ first two games last season while recovering from a serious staph infection in his back. In those two games, Liberty was shutout against Syracuse and scored just 14 points at Louisiana. Entering Saturday’s game at NC State, Liberty was averaging 38.8 points per game in the 19 games under Freeze since he returned to the sidelines.
Willis completed just 13 of 32 pass attempts against the Wolfpack, for 172 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He had just 44 rushing yards on 15 attempts.
Much of his struggles were due to the defensive game plan by NC State. They were able to continually get pressure on the mobile quarterback, and when he attempted to scramble from the pocket, the Wolfpack did a tremendous job containing him.
“They are by far the most athletic team that we have played,” Hugh Freeze said of the NC State defense. “They’re healthy, they got all their kids back, number one, that middle linebacker is a first rounder. He gave us fits all night. I don’t know if we blocked him all night. They were very athletic at every position. The gaps on Malik closed extremely fast. I thought we had a couple shot plays, we run the routes, and the ball just hung in the air a lot. His fundamentals were a little jittery, throwing off his back foot some tonight. He hasn’t really experienced this type of pressure.”
Willis’ second of three interceptions came in the 4th quarter with Liberty leading 14-9. The Wolfpack took over inside the Liberty 30 yard line, and despite the strong play of the Flames’ defense all night, they were unable to keep NC State out of the end zone as the ACC team took the lead, 15-14, by the final margin.
“I take all the blame, God takes all the glory,” Willis said following the game. “It’s all on me, I take the blame for that loss. I take the blame for turning the ball over and just putting us in terrible situations when the defense was picking us up every time. Offensive line, running backs, and receivers doing their part, I just got to take command and do what I’m supposed to do and go out there and take care of the football. I just got to take care of the ball, that’s what it comes down to. Turnovers lose games, and we lost this game because of turnovers. They were turnovers from myself, I just turned the ball over, interceptions.”
“He’s hurting,” Freeze said of Willis. “I’m hurting because I don’t feel like I helped him enough, but, man, you go toe to toe with a team in the ACC that I think’s one of the top 3 or 4 talented teams in that group and had a chance to win it. I’m proud of them for that, but it does sting.”
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics