GAME SUMMARY: Liberty 37 vs #12 Coastal Carolina 34
There are three Liberty football moments that I will remember for the rest of my life. When Liberty beat Baylor, when Liberty beat VT, and now when Liberty beat Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. It has been a magical year Flames Nation. Liberty is 10-1 for the first time in program FBS history, has a win over a Top 15 FBS team for the first time in school history, and has a head coach who is one of the hottest names in football who turned down several Power 5 offers to stay and develop the Liberty football program. Could we have asked for anything more for Christmas?
Liberty’s offensive performance Saturday is a tricky one to analyze. On the one hand, the Flames put up 255 yards rushing, moved the ball effortlessly for most of the game, and only had to punt once, on the other hand, Liberty turned the ball over 3 times, twice in the end zone, and had to settle for field goals on three occasions, including in overtime. It was an up and down performance that kept Flames fans on the edge of their seat and their blood pressure uncomfortably high until the very end.
Highlighting Liberty’s offense, as usual, was Malik Willis who rushed for 137 yards and 4 TDS but also threw for only 220 yards, no TDS and 2 INTs. Willis looked incredible escaping from pressure and turning nothing into something as he frequently eluded defenders in the backfield to scramble for big gains down the field, but although Liberty definitely owes the win today and indeed its 10 win record to Willis’s big playmaking ability, it is also part of the reason that the game was as close as it was. Willis looked a little off in the passing game today, especially on deep throws where he missed at least 4 different times on what could have been big pickups or scores. Timing issues on the deep ball is to be expected after 4 weeks off for Willis and this offense, but certainly, some of his miscues (especially the picks) were due to just his all or nothing playstyle as a whole and trying to do too much with the ball. Willis had a really nasty pick that he threw across his body into double coverage in the middle of the field that resulted in 3 points for Coastal. He also had an interception on an out-rout in the end zone that luckily resulted in no points for Coastal after the Chanticleers turned it over themselves on the ensuing drive. Willis should probably have had two other balls picked but luckily they bounced harmlessly off the defender’s hands.
However, in the end, it was Willis’s legs, not his arm that won this game for Liberty, and in the run game, Willis was perfect. He had no fumbles, he made wise decisions (for the most part) on when to get down and when to go for it (which has been a big learning point for him this year). Most importantly, when Willis did decide to run it, he did so with speed and power highlighted by his second TD where he ran to the outside to clear the defensive end, made the linebacker miss on a juke move, and then plowed through two other defenders to get to the end zone. The option play with Willis running the ball worked perfectly for Liberty all night long and Coastal had no answer for it. It may not have been Willis’s best performance, but it was certainly a memorable one and he blazed his way into the Liberty history books with a trail of Coastal defenders in his wake.
Willis was not alone out there Saturday for the Flames and key contributions were made by several other key players. The Liberty receiving corps looked incredible whenever they got the ball in their hands and Stubbs, Douglas, and Shaa all made would-be tacklers miss as they added multiple yards after catch and contact. Do-it-all TE Huntley only had 2 catches but they were significant as the big target found his way to 34 yards and had a great defensive effort breaking up a would-be interception on a poorly thrown deep ball by Willis. However, highlighting the supporting cast for Liberty’s offense was Joshua Mack who had his first 100-yard rushing game since the third week of the season with 105 yards on the ground. Liberty was very effective at using the pass to set up the run game (which is unusual because it is usually the other way around). Honestly, Liberty should probably have tried to rely on the ground game more as they only gave 21 carries to players not named Malik Willis.
As effective as Mack was at breaking tackles and carrying the Liberty ground game, he will, unfortunately, be remembered most in this game for one of the most bizarre plays in Liberty’s football history. With 1:20 left on the clock and the game tied 34-34, Liberty had the ball at the Coastal 3 yard line and decided to try to burn some clock vs punching it in. Mack took the ball and after a few seconds took a knee to wind the clock down to 41 seconds, all as planned. However, on the next play, Mack took the ball again and instead of taking a knee, ran towards the goal line and then tried to stop but got carried towards the end zone by the Coastal defenders, as he was being pushed towards the end zone he put the ball in one hand and tried to keep it out of the end zone at which point the Coastal defense stripped the ball from his hands and recovered it at the 1-yard line! Instead of Liberty being able to go up by a field goal or a touchdown with limited time on the clock, Coastal now had the ball and the game went to overtime! A crazy finish to a crazy game that will certainly go down as an all-time bowl season classic!
34 points is a lot of points to give up, but the defense really did have a nice performance Saturday, and when it mattered most the Liberty D came up with the stop in OT. This is the second year in a row that Liberty has played an option style offense in a bowl game as last year’s Georgia Southern team ran an option-based attack (though in much more of the traditional sense compared to Coastal). Liberty did a great job of shutting down the option and held Coastal (a team that averages over 223 yards rushing a game) to only 165 yards and one score on the ground. Liberty hasn’t played in 4 weeks and I expected them to come out looking rusty and sloppy (at least initially) but Liberty looked sharp and disciplined right from the get-go and forced Coastal’s first 3 drives to end in punts or turnovers on downs (to include a big 4th and 2 stop on the first drive). There were very few times that Coastal was able to get past the first defender as Liberty was tackling with good technique and added some highlight real worthy “light em up” hits along the way. The thing I was most impressed with was Liberty’s eye discipline as each defender really seemed to key in on their assignments and wasn’t fooled by Coastal’s option offense. Coastal’s star QB, Grayson McCall, found a few running lanes on scrambles, but for the most part, Liberty kept him firmly bottled up and managed to sack him twice (Coastal had only given up 9 sacks all year on McCall coming into this one).
For all the success in stopping the run game, Liberty could not seem to get a handle in the secondary as McCall found success almost every single time he put the ball in the air on his way to 318 yards passing, 3 TDS, and 1 INT (only the third time he has passed for over 300 yards this year). Liberty actually did an ok job in the first half where they had pretty good coverage on the deep passes and only gave up stuff underneath, but those short throws added up to 146 yards in the first half, and in the second half the secondary started to find themselves getting caught with their eyes in the backfield and biting off on the underneath routes and got burned several times deep. However, the secondary got a chance to fully redeem themselves as in OT Coastal tried three straight passing plays which all ended up incomplete and was forced to settle for an ultimately unsuccessful field goal.
Stand out players on defense would have to be Scruggs and Butler who led the team with a combined 17 tackles, but it was Scruggs who made the biggest splash with his interception and subsequent 59-yard return which set Liberty back up at the Coastal 10 yard line and essentially gave LU a second chance reset after Willis’s previous interception in the red zone.
- SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
If 4 weeks off was a potential hurdle to overcome for the other elements of Liberty’s football team, it was an absolute boon to the special teams and specifically the kicking game. Barbir, as I have said before, is an incredible talent with an amazing leg who just has been out of the game too long. He had very little time to prepare before he was pressed into action for Liberty this season, hadn’t kicked competitively since high school and it showed. However, as the season has worn on, Barbir has gotten progressively better and he seemed to really benefit from the additional practice. Barbir was 2-9 on field goals between 29-50 yards coming into this game, yet Saturday he hit kicks from 37, 32 and most importantly 44 to give the Flames the lead in overtime. He was 3/3 and all kicks were from the range that he has struggled at most, the mid-range kick. It has been a rollercoastery but magical season for Barbir who now has two game-winning field goals in the biggest Liberty games of all time (vs VT and now Coastal) and I wouldn’t blame him if he hung up his cleats to end on a high note, but if he does decide to come back we could be looking at one of the best kickers in school history next season.
Barbir was incredible, but it was the coverage units and specifically the field goal block unit which stole the show in this one as Elijah James managed to get his hands up in the right place at the right time to tip the ball off to the left and give Liberty its first win over a Top 15 team. Liberty’s special teams have been the only real weak spot for the Flames all year, but they are without a doubt ultimately responsible for Liberty walking away from Orlando with a win Saturday. If the bowl game performance is representative of this team’s capabilities going forward, Liberty may finally be at the point of being a complete team that has the potential to compete at the highest levels of College Football.
HOW DID LIBERTY FULFILL MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. COME OUT SLOW AND GET IN RHYTHM: A
Liberty got on pace early in this one and a big part of that was the fact that Hugh Freeze let his offense get used to the stage and didn’t try to do too much. Liberty ran only one play longer than 15 yards the entire 1st quarter yet managed to score twice due to effective short passing to get Willis in tune with his receivers and multiple designed QB runs or QB scrambles that helped Willis get used to the feel of running the ball again after 4 weeks out. However, Freeze probably should have waited one or two more drives before ratcheting up the play calling, as Willis ended up throwing an interception on an attempted deep pass on the third drive and after that Liberty didn’t manage to score another TD until midway through the third. Despite the drop off in the second half Liberty still gets an A as the key was for Liberty to start slow which they did.
2. DEFENSE NEEDS TO FOCUS ON T.E.S: A-
Liberty had phenomenal Tackling, Eye discipline and Swarming for the most part throughout this game. The fact that Liberty’s tackling didn’t seem to suffer at all is a true testament to Hugh Freeze and the coaching staff he has selected. I don’t think I have ever seen a team come off as long a break as Liberty and have as good a day executing defensive fundamentals against one of the most potent offensives in the country. A truly impressive performance from a unit that has had one of the most incredible turnarounds from the beginning of the season of any that I have ever seen!
3. IMPRESS THE VOTERS: A+
For the majority of you who watched this game on tv (thanks 2020) vs in the stands, you will likely agree with me that it seemed like the announcers calling the game had barely even heard of Liberty let alone watched them play. Well, they’ve heard of them now and after this performance, everyone who cares about college football will know who the Liberty Flames are. Liberty proved all the neigh-sayers, pollsters, and biased media wrong by winning in prime time, on a national network against a Top 15 team. If Liberty can manage to get the majority of its players to return next year, I would not be surprised if they start the season in the Top 20 in the pre-season polls. Liberty has the nation’s attention now, Jerry Falwell Sr would be proud.
Normally beating a Sunbelt team in a bowl game would be a fun if unimpressive way to end the season but this wasn’t just any Sunbelt team, this was an undefeated, Top 15, school rival who was making national statements to the tune that they should be getting consideration for a spot in the Playoffs. Beating Coastal is not new to the LU Flames, but beating them with this kind of national attention certainly is a different feeling. Liberty has had an incredible year which will go down in school lore as one of the most historic and impressive seasons of all time. In a year where it looked like there may be no football at all, we got a 10-1 Liberty team with a reestablished nationally praised head coach, a rising star at QB and a team overall that is coming together as a top team in college football in only their third year in the FBS.
Liberty has made it to the national stage and with games against 9+ win teams in Louisiana and Army and Power 5 matchups with Ole Miss and Syracuse to look forward to next year, there will be an abundance of opportunities for Liberty to make an impression at the national level. The season that Hugh Freeze has managed to throw together on short notice in this weird and wacky year of college football is truly impressive and I think opposing teams are looking ahead to next year with dread over what he could do with a full offseason to prepare and develop. Thank you for reading my articles this year and I look forward to covering Liberty football next year as they continue to strive to fulfill Jerry Falwell Sr’s dream that Liberty would someday join the Notre Dame’s and BYU’s of the world at the top of the college football stage (p.s. I think they have arrived).
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point.