FREEZE MAKES EMOTIONAL RETURN TO OXFORD
It was the story all week leading up to the game as Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze made his return to Oxford, Mississippi. He grew up in this state and has spent much of his life in Mississippi, including his time at Ole Miss. It’s obviously a place that is close to his heart, and, despite some shots from the Ole Miss football twitter account during the game which they later apologized for, Freeze got visibly emotional in his post game press conference for the first time during his tenure as Liberty’s head coach.
“First, I want to say to the Ole Miss people, thank you for your kindness to me and my family,” he said following the game. “It couldn’t have gone any better from that regard. Obviously, I don’t like losing, and wished we would have had a chance to win that in the end, but as far as the reception from the Ole Miss people last night in the hotel in Tupelo, or when we arrived or after the game or when we’re walking to halftime, I thought they were just incredibly kind. That is a huge (tearing up), it’s an answered prayer for Jill and I. I’m thankful.”
THE RETURN OF JMACK
A week ago against UMass, when Liberty was nearly a five touchdown favorite at home against the Minutemen, Liberty running back Joshua Mack did not see the field. Coach Freeze was asked about it following the game, and he simply stated that the other running backs, TJ Green and Shedro Louis, got the nod. There has been no report of an injury for Mack, so the rumblings of the Liberty super senior potentially being in Freeze’s doghouse began.
That is clearly not the case as JMack was Liberty’s lead back against the SEC Rebels. Mack led the Liberty running backs with 19 carries and he finished the game with 98 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. He was the feature running back for a Liberty team that saw plenty of success on the ground against the Ole Miss defense. The Flames finished the game with 284 rushing yards, doubling up Ole Miss’ 142 yards through the run. Shedro Louis eclipsed the 100 yard mark with 101 rushing yards on just 7 carries including Liberty’s first ever points against an SEC team on his 28 yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.
CORRAL WINS QB BATTLE
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral won the battle on the field Saturday between the two potential first round quarterbacks. With representatives from 15 NFL teams on hand for the matchup, Corral, who played despite an ankle injury, completed 20 of his 27 passes for 324 yards and 1 touchdown to go along with 6 rushes for 9 yards
Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, who was under duress throughout the game as he was sacked 9 times, completed 16 of his 25 passes for 173 yards and 3 interceptions. He also had 27 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown. If you take the negative yards from the 9 sacks away from Malik’s rushing stats, he would have had 126 rushing yards.
Willis, who was unavailable for post game media access due to a cut he sustained to his tongue on Liberty’s final drive which required stitches, threw three interceptions in a game for the third time this season. One of those came at a costly time late in the first half when the Flames were driving to try to get some points on the board to remain in the game against the No. 15 Rebels. Another interception was on Liberty’s final offensive play of the game as he forced a pass into the end zone. His third interception came earlier in the game when he had completed a pass to Noah Frith, which after replay review, was overturned and ruled as a pick as the Ole Miss defender wrestled the ball away from Frith as they fell to the ground.
“Truthfully, Matt Corral is really special, but he seldom was under any pressure,” Freeze said of the quarterbacks. “I think our guy throws it really well too when he’s not. He had so much pressure on him that it was very difficult to probably see his true ability in throwing the football. I’m so proud of Malik, the way he fought and battled, he got hit, hit, hit and just kept fighting. Man, Matt is pretty special. He throws a very accurate ball. He is poised and knows when to kill a play and use his legs. I was as impressed with him as I was on film.”
FLAMES BOUNCE BACK WITH SOLID 2ND HALF AGAINST SEC TEAM
Entering the halftime break with a 24-0 deficit was a tough pill to swallow for a Liberty team that was so close to making the game very competitive for the duration of the afternoon in Oxford, Mississippi. The Flames had a missed field goal, the late interception, and another promising drive derailed by sacks that all could have ended in points. Ultimately, the 24-0 score was too much to overcome on the road against a top 15 SEC team.
At halftime, Liberty had to face the reality that the team had been outscored 77-0 in its first six quarters of program history against an SEC opponent. In its first ever game against an SEC team, the Flames lost at Auburn 53-0 in 2018 in a game where Malik Willis scored a rushing touchdown for the Tigers against his current team.
This Liberty team would not quit and showed how much progress this program has made since 2018, which was the first season as a transitional FBS team. In the second half, the Flames did not give up a touchdown and outscored Ole Miss 14-3. It gives the team some level of confidence heading into a bye week before a tough two-game home stand to close out the regular season against Louisiana and Army.
“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.”
DEFENSE STRONG IN ITS OWN TERRITORY
Behind head coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Matt Corral, Ole Miss has one of the more explosive offenses in the country. They showed that ability on the second play of the game when the Rebels broke free from the line of scrimmage for a 70 yard touchdown run to take the quick 7-0 lead and put the Flames on their heels the rest of the game.
As the teams settled into the game though, the Liberty defense showed itself very strong when Ole Miss got deep into Liberty territory, several times stopping the No. 15 team in the country from reaching the end zone. The Rebels had five possessions on the day that reached the Liberty 30 yard line and those drives accounted for 13 points. That strong played allowed the Flames to have a chance to make this game competitive.
Liberty was able to force three field goal attempts (one of which was missed), a turnover on downs, and then Ole Miss scored a four yard touchdown following a deep pass play for the only touchdown that came from within 40 yards.
“Did they give up too many explosive plays today? Yes, but a lot of other great teams in this conference have given them up to those guys,” Freeze said of his defense. “We knew we were going to have to be really good in the red zone and probably hold them to a few field goals. We did that, we just needed to do that in the first half and keep them to maybe 14 or 17 in the first half. Obviously, we should have gotten a few points in the first half that would have helped make a difference too and we didn’t. I’m proud of these kids, proud of the fight, proud of our coaches, our administration. I’m at a great university with great people. Like I said, wish we could have found a way to get the thing close and the truth of our team this year is when we’ve not turned it over we’ve won. When we turn it over we usually lose. Give credit to Ole Miss for causing those turnovers.”