Liberty has scored on its first possession of the first three games this season. It’s something that has become customary under head coach Hugh Freeze, the Flames’ offense comes out firing. We saw the same thing play out Friday night in the Carrier Dome.

After the Liberty defense forced Syracuse into a three and out to begin the game, Flames’ quarterback Malik Willis engineered a 9 play, 53 yard drive that took the offense into the Syracuse red zone. Running back TJ Green was stuffed for no gain on 3rd and 3, and Freeze called on Alex Barbir for a 36 yard field goal, which he missed wide left, keeping the Flames off the scoreboard and giving the Orange some early momentum.

He was Liberty’s hero last year against Virginia Tech when his 51-yard field goal easily cleared the goal posts at Lane Stadium last November. He also had the game winning kick in the Cure Bowl against Coastal Carolina, but this season Barbir is now just 1 for 4 on his field attempts. Those early struggles and his miss on the opening drive surely played into Freeze’s decision to go for it on 4th and goal from the three yard line in a tie game midway through the fourth quarter.

“It factors in for sure,” Freeze said after the game when asked if Barbir’s kick played into his fourth down decision. “In your mind, when you are thinking about putting the ball in Malik Willis’ hands and if they stop us they are going to have it at the 2 yard line. Our defense was playing well the second half. Ultimately, got a stop and we got it back which is what we had hoped for. Unfortunately, we had our first turnover of the year and I don’t think they turned it over any. It factors in. We’ve got to give him shots when we have them, but it would have been nice to have points right there at the first, for sure.”


The Syracuse offense were able to move the ball at will in the first half, particularly on the ground. After going three and out on their first possession, the Orange put together three consecutive strong drives that all ended in scoring opportunities. They missed a 52-yard field goal on the first try, and then responded with back to back touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead in the first half.

Attempting to put the game out of reach, Syracuse opened the second half with a 74-yard touchdown drive to push their lead back to 14 at 21-7. That’s when Liberty defensive coordinator Scott Symons and the Flames’ defense were able to make adjustments and shut the Orange down the rest of the way giving Liberty the chance to make a comeback.

Syracuse had 291 yards of offense through the first half and their first drive of the second half, but they were shut down and only picked up 45 yards of offense the rest of the way. The only points the Orange got the rest of the way was a field goal on the final play of the game that won it for Syracuse on their home field, but that came after Liberty’s first offensive turnover of the season when Syracuse took the field at the Liberty 30 yard line.


Liberty’s offense successfully managed their way through three full games and until the 3:35 mark of the fourth quarter in game four before having their first turnover of the season and it proved costly. The Flames took over on offense at their own 27 yard line with 4:21 left in the game and the score tied at 21. Every Liberty football fan had visions of Malik Willis guiding the team down the field while running the clock out and scoring the game winning points in the final seconds of the game.

It wouldn’t play out that way though.

Willis scrambled for 10 yards on the first play of the drive, picking up a first down. He then dropped back to pass on the next play, had the pocket collapse on him, began to escape the pocket, then cocked his arm back to try to find CJ Daniels down the field. He didn’t see Syracuse’s Marlowe Wax sneak up on him from behind and hit him right as he pulled his arm back. It forced the ball out of his hands and fell to the Carrier Dome turf and the Orange recovered in field goal range to set up for the game winning field goal.


Coming into the game, Liberty knew they would have their hands full with Syracuse freshman running back Sean Tucker. He became the first Syracuse player to finish a single game with more than 100 yards receiving and rushing in the Orange’s win last week against Albany. He proved to be Syracuse’s best weapon Friday night against the Flames.

Tucker would finish the game with 32 rushing attempts for 169 yards and 1 touchdown as he averaged 5.3 yards per carry. He also led the team in receiving with 27 yards. The Flames were able to make the Orange one-dimensional as quarterback Garrett Shrader completed just 6 of his 15 passes for 77 yards, but the rushing attack, led by Tucker, was too much for the Flames to overcome.

*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics