On the night where Liberty saw its third quarterback start a game this season, it was the defense and punter that helped propel the Flames to victory. Liberty improved to 3-1 on the young 2022 campaign with a 21-12 win over the Akron Zips on Saturday night in front of 20,004 fans in attendance at Williams Stadium.

“Defense and I thought Aidan Alves punted the ball extremely well,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said following the game when asked about the keys to the win. “We didn’t cover it well all the time, but the 4th quarter he really flipped the field and kept them pinned back and gave us some short fields where we could get in some things where we felt like let’s just try to run the ball and hammer, and get that last score in. He’s probably our MVP as well as our defense bowing their neck and keeping them out of the end zone so many times.”

Redshirt-sophomore Johnathan Bennett made his first career start at the college level. He got off to a strong start before hitting a rough patch and not being able to dig himself or the offense out of it before Coach Freeze elected to go with redshirt-freshman Nate Hampton to seal the victory.

Liberty’s first drive was a heavy dose of the run game as Dae Dae Hunter was handed the ball five of the first six offensive plays. It was successful and helped move the Flames into Akron territory. A couple plays later, Bennett would connect with Khaleb Coleman for a 22-yard touchdown toss. It was the first touchdown catch by any Liberty player other than Demario Douglas this season.

On Liberty’s next possession, Bennett would be sacked from his blind side after X’Zauvea Gadlin missed a block. Without seeing the pressure coming, the Liberty quarterback would lose control of the ball and the Zips would bounce on it. The Flames’ defense once again responded and forced a quick three and out and punt.

Bennett would engineer a second scoring drive on Liberty’s third offensive possession. On the drive, Bennett was 4 for 4 passing for 59 yards with a touchdown strike to Treon Sibley, his first reception of the season, as the Flames took a 14-0 lead.

The Zips were able to strike just before the end of the first half with a 41 yard pass completion down the right sideline that moved Akron into the red zone. As time expired in the opening 30 minutes, Akron got on the score board with a 34-yard field goal.

Akron capitalized on that momentum and carried it over into the second half. With the Liberty offense unable to string together any drives, the Zips added a field goal midway through the third quarter and a touchdown early in the final period. Their two-point conversion came up just short of the goal line, as they were trailing the Flames, 14-12.

“There is a lot that we’ve got to fix, particularly offensively and some special teams wise,” said Freeze. “Defense continues to play well. I tell you, Coach Moorhead had an outstanding plan tonight against us. Really give them credit for the plan that they had. They are really good coaches. They had good skill people too and the quarterback played really, really well. But, we’ve got to fix some stuff offensively and that lies in my lap.”

With a narrow two-point lead and the visiting Zips having all the momentum, Liberty punter Aidan Alves became a weapon and helped push the Flames over the top. He had three strong punts in the final quarter, including a 64-yard booming punt that was downed at the 1-yard line by Javon Scruggs just before it went into the end zone for a touchback.

That punt flipped the field position and changed the game. Liberty’s defense forced a three and out and allowed the offense to get back on the field with the ball near midfield. Nate Hampton would enter the game at quarterback on the ensuing possession, providing a spark for an offense that had struggled most of the night. Behind Dae Dae Hunter and Hampton’s rushing ability, the Flames would score a touchdown with 4:46 left on the clock

“I love JB. He’s been with us a long time,” Freeze said of deciding to go to Hampton. “You want to give him every chance to lead our team to victory. Certainly, he threw two really good touchdown passes tonight, but it really came down to once we kind of flipped that field, thinking we’re not protecting extremely well. Let me see if I can get some plus one runs and get the ball in the end zone. That’s what we did.”

Questions will remain throughout the week about the quarterback situation. Obviously, Charlie Brewer will remain out for at least a couple more weeks. There has not been a timetable set for Kaidon Salter’s groin injury. Salter, who started the previous two games, was on the sidelines Saturday night but not in uniform.

“Thankful we have him and JB, because we are obviously down to both of those two,” Freeze said of Hampton and Bennett. “It will take both of them moving forward if that’s the case for us to compete and win games.”

Liberty was a 26.5 point favorite entering the game against Akron, but with a third string quarterback making the start, just finding a way to win is all that matters as the Flames move one step closer to bowl eligibility.

“Look, winning college football games is hard,” said Freeze. “I’m thankful, thankful that our kids fought, found a way to win the game. Had a feeling it was going to be a difficult task by the way the week kind of went. We celebrate the fact that we’re one step closer to our goal of being bowl eligible. They all count the same at the end of the year and you’re not going to worry about it.”