On a humid but otherwise beautiful evening for football in Lynchburg, Virginia, the Flames were unable to capitalize on early opportunities, falling to #22 Syracuse, 24-0.
“(I’m) disappointed in a lot of things obviously,” Coach Freeze said through a video monitor in the postgame press conference while he was still in the press box. “(I was) also encouraged by some things. I thought our defense just took a huge step forward from last year in the way they competed, the way that they played tonight. I thought their plan was really good outside of a few 3rd downs on screen game and a couple penalties. I thought they played really solid against a top 20 opponent, really gave us a shot if we did anything at all offensively. That’s the real positive coming out of this to me, I think we’ve got a chance over there to be OK if we can stay healthy.”
Twice in the third quarter Liberty moved the ball deep into Syracuse territory but was unable to get any points on the board. The first was following a muffed Syracuse punt that was recovered by Liberty at midfield. The drive stalled inside the 30 yard line where Alex Probert missed a 45-yard field goal wide right.
On Liberty’s next drive, the Flames drove inside the Syracuse 5 yard line thanks to a 56-yard catch and run by Antonio Gandy-Golden. Running back Joshua Mack fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Orange at the 3. Those two drives were the only two drives until late in the 4th quarter that Liberty even reached Orange territory as the Syracuse defense stiffened.
“I thought that was huge,” Freeze said of the offense’s misses on those early drives. “You get 10 points there or 6 points there to give us confidence and momentum, I think the game could have been a little bit differently. Those are the plays, when we’re trying to now compete with some of these Power Five schools you have to come away with points there. You can’t turn the ball over there in a tight red zone, unfortunately that’s what we did early on. You get those points early in the game and you’re up and our defense is playing really well, you never know what happens then.”
Senior Buckshot Calvert struggled with the pressure he faced all evening. He threw two interceptions, his 6th multi-interception game in his past 8 contests dating back to 2018. Calvert finished 20-for-39 passing for 234 yards and 2 interceptions while being sacked 7 times.
“I think if i was on the sidelines, I could have maybe talked to Buckshot a little bit more about his drops and his footwork,” said Freeze. “I tried to do it (in the press box). I would have liked to look at him eye to eye because he really got sloppy with his mechanics some, and I thought it hurt him on some of the pass plays we had. We had a couple open guys, chances to hit them on 3rd downs, and we didn’t. I think maybe being down on the field could have helped some with that and just calming him down.”
This was the first time in 18 home games that Calvert hasn’t thrown for a touchdown. The only previous time in his career that he went without a touchdown pass at Williams Stadium was his first career home game, September 10, 2016 against Jacksonville.
“We had the momentum early and we shot ourselves in the foot,” Calvert said. “That carried on for the rest of the game for the offense. Just ended long drives sometimes and then just shot ourselves in the foot. Stuff that we could correct, stuff that’s in-house that we can fix. That’s what we’ve got to continue to improve on.”
Syracuse thwarted Liberty’s rushing attack, holding the Flames to -4 yards rushing on the evening. That’s the worst rushing performance by a Liberty team since the Flames were held to -23 yards rushing at Coastal Carolina on November 17, 2016.
“Once we were not effective running the football, they really were teeing off on us and made it very difficult on our offensive line,” Freeze said of the rushing attack. “You always have to at least have the appearance of being balanced. Their defensive line was more athletic than our offensive line. Watch as the year goes and I will predict that they play very good defense throughout the year. Once we became, in their mind, one-dimensional, it became a very hard uphill battle.”
Under new Defensive Coordinator Scott Symons, the Liberty defense was very effective for the majority of the game as they kept the score within reach into the 4th quarter. As the game developed, the Syracuse offense wore down the Flames’ defense as they began to enforce their will.
Safety Elijah Benton led the way for the Flames with 13 tackles while Ralfs Rusins and Amarii Jenkins each had one sack. Liberty forced 3 turnovers – a fumble recovered by Rion Davis and interceptions by Bejour Wilson and Ceneca Espinoza.
“They were playing a very unique defense,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said. “It’s something that I’ve seen before, but our team hadn’t seen it before. You’ve got to attack it a very particular way. What you need to do is be very patient, throw the ball short, which is one of the reasons why the screens were so effective.”
The Orange finished with 368 total yards on offense, 192 coming on the ground. Of the 176 passing yards Syracuse finished with, many of them came on screen passes to running backs. Running back Moe Neal led the team with 54 receiving yards. Fellow running back Abdul Adams added 29 yards through the air.
Liberty wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden began his senior campaign with an impressive showing. He had 103 receiving yards in the first quarter. AGG finished the evening with 6 receptions for 119 yards as the Orange defense keyed on him over the final three quarters.
“No, there’s nothing they did,” Gandy-Golden said of not being more productive after the first quarter. “We shot ourselves in the foot.”
In a matchup at Williams Stadium with an ACC opponent and an FBS nationally-ranked opponent for the first time in program history, the final attendance was 21,671. This is the third-highest in Williams Stadium history and the largest for a home opener.
“(I’m) disappointed that we did not play a cleaner game offensively tonight and be in this thing in the 4th quarter,” Freeze said.
Dropping to 0-1, Liberty will hit the road this week to face the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Louisiana opened the season Saturday with a loss to Mississippi State, 38-28. Kickoff is set for 7:30 eastern time in Lafayette, Louisiana and will be televised on ESPN+.