GAME SUMMARY: Liberty 16 vs Army 31
The final score in this one may seem like a big Army win, but the truth is that due to an incredible all-around second-half effort by the offense and defense Liberty had two opportunities late in the game to bring this within one score and pull out the win. Unfortunately, the slow start by the Flames, which has been a trend all season, hurt the team as they allowed Army to jump up to a 24-3 lead in the first half and were never able to overcome it. However, the second-half effort that saw Liberty outscore Army 13-7 and have two solid shots at making it close deserves to be applauded and is representative of the never-give-up spirit that this team has displayed all season.
This team and its seniors may not have had the regular season end (or season in general) that they were hoping for but what this team has managed to do in four years with a bowl game potentially on the horizon is truly incredible. While I am going to spend the majority of my time analyzing the overall performance against Army, I would be remiss if I did not start off by saying thank you to all of Liberty’s seniors and the historic effort, they have put in these last 4 seasons.
Liberty decided to come out slow in this one, which was actually a good idea with the way Army controls the clock, however, when the offensive style was failing to make headway Hugh Freeze refused to make adjustments, a trend we’ve seen all season until the second half. In the second half, Liberty came out with a fast-paced pass-heavy attack that didn’t overemphasize Willis’ run game but instead used Willis’ arms to open up holes in the running game for both the QB scramble and the traditional RB run game.
With the slow-paced, Willis run focused attack of the first half Liberty scored only once (a field goal) on 6 drives, but with the fast-paced, passing attack, Liberty scored on 2/4 drives in the second half, and if not for drops and penalties would have scored on the other two as well. If there’s one thing that Liberty can take away from this season it’s that they are not built for a run-heavy, slow-it-down, traditional offensive attack. Liberty, with its still undersized and under-recruited (for the most part) players, finds success when they can use their speed to keep the defense off-balance. If Hugh Freeze keeps recruiting the way he is there will come a time when Liberty has the players to run the style of offense Freeze is clearly so intent on establishing but in the present (the bowl if there is one and going into next season) if Liberty wants to find success they need to tap into the same up-tempo offensive focus that found Liberty so much success last season and at times this year.
However, the biggest mistake and head-scratcher by the coaching staff in Saturday’s game was the decision to go for it 4 times in a row from mid-field (one was a faked punt, but the rest were traditional offensive plays) that set up Army with good field positions and led directly to 4 Army scores to take 24-0 lead early in this one. It’s the final game of the season, Liberty doesn’t really have a lot to lose, and it’s senior night, so you can understand Hugh Freeze wanting to be aggressive but there’s a thin line between wanting to be aggressive and just trying to force it for no real reason. It’s hard enough to stop Army’s dangerous offensive attack, but when you start 4 straight drives with your heels on your side of the field that can be pretty demoralizing for a defense. Now, Liberty’s punting issues last week may have had something to do with Freeze’s reluctance to punt the ball, but at some point (probably after the second failed fourth-down attempt) you just have to live to fight another day, trust your punter, and give your defense a chance of getting the stop and flipping the field. On the day Liberty finished 2/7 on fourth downs and punted the ball only once.
Addressing specific performances, Willis actually had a pretty good day against the Black Knights. He didn’t take too many needless sacks, ran the ball well once Liberty had established the passing game in the second half, and finished the day with 305 yards and a touchdown. However, Willis was only 24/46 passing on the game and also had a pick. Two of the reasons for the low completion percentage were overthrows by Willis and drops by the receivers.
Addressing the first, Willis seemed out of sync again on Saturday with his receivers when throwing the deep ball, something Liberty has struggled with all season and I think is emblematic of the fact that Liberty does not have a true big receiving threat who can consistently win the 50/50 deep balls (think AGG). One especially devastating missed pass was actually not an overthrow but an underthrow as the ball was behind Stubbs (who also wasn’t looking for the ball) on a route that if it was completed would have certainly been a touchdown (the drive ended with a turnover on downs).
Willis is going to have plenty of time between now and any bowl game Liberty may get so the best thing for him to do would be to focus on the deep ball with his receivers as it is the part of his game (besides holding onto the ball too long) that is one of his only true weaknesses. NFL scouts will be using the bowl game as a final evaluation tool and it could be a massive redemption opportunity for Willis who has struggled down the stretch. His arm strength is not in question, but his ability to put the ball in the right spot consistently (especially the deep ball) is a major concern that could hurt him at the next level.
The second, and really the main reason for Willis’ low completion percentage was the worst case of the dropsies I have ever seen out of a Liberty receiving corps. The receivers could have definitely used some of that glue that was keeping the flags in the referees’ pockets Saturday as Liberty receivers dropped wide open, well-thrown passes numerous times and in key situations. The most glaring was 3 straight dropped passes on Liberty’s second to last drive which would have brought the score within one possession. Two passes were dropped when the receivers made contact with the ground and would have been first downs, and the third was a perfectly thrown TD pass that went right through the breadbasket of Demario Douglas. There were many other drops, some just as big as those previously described, but I’m not going to go through each and every one. Suffice it to say that for whatever reason Liberty’s receiving corps was off and in the end it definitely played a role in Liberty missing out on a chance for a memorable comeback on Senior Day.
One final note before we move on to the defense was that Liberty finally went with one dedicated tailback in Mack, something I have been calling for all season. However, something I have not called for is for Liberty to try and work Mack into the receiving game! Mack only has 22 receptions in his career (only 3 on the season coming into this one) and for good reason, he is not a receiving back! He is a great every-down style back who can mix it up in the screen game and will do great things in the running game (5.4 yards per carry on his 7 touches) but having him run traditional routes is not his strong suit and Mack dropped a couple of key passes thrown his way. I have argued all season for using a bell-cow back, but I have also said that the other backs should be used situationally, primarily, Louis on third downs and medium where the passing game is a factor but Louis totaled no carries or receptions in this one despite being dressed for the game and used on kickoffs. Louis would have added a reliable and shifty receiving target for the Flames vs putting Mack in situations that he is not suited for. A questionable decision by the coaching staff for sure.
The offense wasn’t the only one to get off to a slow start in this one as the defense seemed confused by the option scheme, struggled to stop the dive and QB run scheme, and even allowed a deep pass over the top for a TD. Now, the defense wasn’t given any favors by an offense that not only couldn’t stay on the field but failed on 4 straight fourth-down conversions to set Army up with easy field position, none the less, Liberty struggled to stop Army early in this one with 4 straight scores allowed.
However, after a rough start to the second half as well, Liberty really buckled down and held Army scoreless the rest of the way out, forcing 3 straight punts. What was the difference? Liberty took away almost entirely the QB run game in the second half and limited the effectiveness of the FB dive, setting up numerous third and medium plays that Liberty was able to turn into big stops. Army is a team that averages over 400 total yards per game and over 300 on the ground, but Liberty held Army to just 322 total yards and only 220 on the ground. Army is lucky they got off to a hot start because they had no answers for the Flames defense in the second half.
It’s a refrain I’ve used often this season, but Liberty’s defense gave their offense every opportunity to win this one late. Liberty on the season has been an incredible second-half defensive team. With the exceptions of UMASS, ULM, and UL, Liberty has held every single team they’ve played to 10 points or less in the second half and held 7 of them to 7 points or less. That is an incredible statistic and shows the amazing job of adjusting to what the offense is showing that this defensive coaching staff has shown all season. The true test of a defensive coordinator’s raw talent is how he is able to adjust to the offensive chess game and Scott Symons obviously has a great deal of raw talent. However, finishing strong doesn’t matter if you’ve dug such a deep hole in the first half that you can’t crawl out of it in the second. The next step forward for this defensive staff is to both come into the games better prepared for what the offense may show, and make those adjustments quicker in the first half before it gets out of hand. If Liberty gets into a bowl there will be plenty of time to pore through the opposing team’s game film and hopefully, Symons and his staff can fix this deficiency and finish the season with a complete defensive performance.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Ahh, special teams, the bane of Hugh Freeze’s existence. I think every time a kicker misses a kick, or a punter shanks/fumbles a punt Freeze dies a little bit inside (at least that’s what his face is saying). However, on a day that Freeze seemed more persistent than ever to sidestep this unit, special teams actually came through the two times the kicking legs were called on and the unit as a whole had a nice day.
Beck made his lone field-goal kick just before half from 36 (a season-long for the true freshman) and the Junior Aiden Alves punted his lone attempt an outstanding 66 yards (a season-long)! Both kicks also came in key points in the game, Beck’s kick when Liberty needed points after a stalled out drive following 4 straight Army scores, and Alves’ when Liberty was backed up inside their own 10-yard line and needed to flip the field before the end of the half. There were a lot of reasons that Liberty lost this game, but for once it wasn’t because of their kicking or punting game.
There was one goof-up by the unit on a fake punt where the freshman punter Morgan attempted to pass the ball on a well sniffed outplay by Army and was intercepted. However, passing the ball isn’t a punter’s strength and this is more of a failure of play-calling as Army was well prepared for the fake after two previous fourth-down attempts by the Flames. Other than that one snafu, the unit overall performed well with no punt/kick returns allowed by the coverage unit and some nice returns by the kick return team who was not caught off guard by several short Army kicks and was highlighted by a 34-yard return by Lowe.
HOW DID LIBERTY PERFORM AGAINST MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. TRUST YOUR TEAMMATES: B-
Liberty definitely struggled to fulfill this key early. The option was not being properly covered which forced the secondary players to sneak up to the line, making them vulnerable to the pass. Second-half adjustments would help fix some of these issues but it definitely wasn’t a perfect job covering the option as Liberty’s defense struggled to both make the right reads and win their one on one battles.
The second part of this key was for Willis to not try and do too much and to trust his teammates by using all the weapons available to him. This is also something Willis struggled at early in this one as he called his own number on several read options that would have been better served going to the back and seemed to be forcing the ball downfield. However, Willis settled down in the second half and Liberty performed much better. It is unfortunate that there were so many dropped passes because that sank Liberty’s chances of a comeback in this one right when Willis was starting to trust his teammates more and will also make it harder for Willis to feel like he doesn’t have to do it all himself if Liberty gets to a bowl game.
2. DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE PASS: F
While it wasn’t a heavy part of Army’s offense Saturday, Liberty definitely forgot about the passing threat with 3 completions all deep for over 100 yards and one touchdown. Liberty is lucky Army was in “grind out the clock” mode in the second half or they may have seen themselves burned on several more deep completions.
3. SLOW THE GAME DOWN: B+
I expected Liberty to find more success against Army running their traditional offense but the truth is that Liberty wasn’t really running their traditional offense as they would define it. The RB run game was barely a factor at all and instead Willis’ legs and the deep ball became the main weapons for the offensive attack. Mack looked great on each of his carries for a total of 38 yards (5.4 yards per carry) but was only given the ball 7 times. Whereas Willis totaled almost the same amount of yards (37) but averaged just 2.3 yards per carry on 16 carries. If Liberty had actually done what I’ve been calling for all season and given Mack a chance to build up steam I think we could have seen a 100+ yard performance out of the back and a different result in this one.
However, while Liberty did slow things down in the first half and run up-tempo in the second which sounds like what I called for, they won’t get the A grade in this one because if you re-read my key I call for Liberty to extend drives as the main way of churning up the clock and Liberty should have made the switch to the up-tempo passing attack which was finding success in converting first downs much earlier to truly fulfill this key.
I said that this 3 game stretch would be the toughest in school history and that was proven true in 3 straight losses to finish the season in a disappointing fashion for a team with such high hopes at the beginning of the year. I definitely expected Liberty to get at least one out of the three and it is deflating for them to end the season in this manner.
However, this whole season has seemed like a rebuild. Even though Liberty returned basically the entire team from last season, the play calling (at least offensively) could not have been more different. Hugh Freeze realizes that in order for Liberty to install themselves as an elite G5 team they need to become a team that can run the ball consistently and can throw the ball deep. Freeze is right in thinking these things but Liberty is still a few recruiting classes away from being able to achieve those lofty goals. This is something Freeze likely realizes but it seems he is focused on establishing the mindset now. Freeze isn’t focused on the short term success from what a gimmicky, up-tempo offense could have brought but on the long-term success of the program once it is able to establish itself under the system he wants to implement, and as his recent massive contract extension would seem to indicate, he is here for the long haul.
Thus the whole season has felt like a giant practice for next year with different elements being emphasized week to week and Freeze stubbornly refusing to change his scheme or adjust in the face of mounting defensive opposition. The fact that Liberty may have perfected certain techniques and worked out kinks that next season may make the program highly successful doesn’t necessarily make the 7-5 record with 5 preventable losses feel any better, but it does give some perspective. I still believe that an up-tempo passing heavy attack with a main bell-cow back is the best option for LU until they prove they have the players to run the offense Freeze wants to run but Freeze wants to ensure the 10 win season last year wasn’t a fluke and Liberty can get to a level where those kinds of seasons become the expectation. Who knows, maybe the former SEC coach and two-time defeater of Bama who brought Ole Miss back from obscurity to what they are today knows what he’s doing. I may have my own thoughts on how Liberty should perform week to week as an analyst, but as a fan, I’m willing to trust the process and can’t wait to see what the future holds for this program. Go Flames!
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point.