GAME SUMMARY: Liberty 14 vs Louisiana 42
Liberty was hoping to bounce back this week at home coming off a tough loss at Ole Miss two weeks ago and riding a 15 game home winning streak. However, in front of a minimum capacity crowd (10,000 below the 25,000 stadium limit) with many students already gone home for the Thanksgiving break, Liberty could not manage to get the offense rolling despite flashes of promise and an overall impressive performance by the defense.
The final score tells a different story from the true nature of this game. Liberty had every opportunity to win this right up to the fourth quarter. While the final score may be a 4 TD spread, for most of this game it was never more than a 1-2 score difference. However, a combination of poor decisions, ineffective play-calling, and lack of discipline by the Flames prevented them from ever developing any momentum or finishing more than 2 of their thirteen drives with scores.
POOR DECISION MAKING
Addressing the poor decisions first, the biggest culprit (for the second game in a row now) was Malik Willis. In fact, Willis has really struggled down the stretch here this season as teams seem to have figured out how to defend against the one-dimensional nature of Hugh Freeze’s offense. Through the first 5 games of the season, Willis had completed passes for 1,105-yards, 11 TDs, and 0 INTs. In the last 6 games, Willis has completed passes for 1,216 yards, 12 TDs, (but the key difference maker) 11 INTs! As a result, Liberty opened up the season 4-1but is now 3-3 their last 6 games.
Willis had his lowest completion percentage (just 41.2%), his second-fewest rushing yards (just 28) his second-lowest yards per carry average (1.4 yards per carry on 20 carries), and his 4th multi-INT outing of the season. Now not all of this is Willis’ fault. The O-line was porous as ever, the receivers were well covered, and the play-calling (to be addressed later) was a major issue. However, Willis also shoulders a significant part of the blame for his performance because (as is typical of his play-style) he danced around and held onto the ball for far too long vs taking the check down or throwing it away, forced the ball into coverage (often double or triple coverage), and seemed to be trying to get the big play every single time vs just taking what was available. A new issue for Willis, which was surprising, was that he appeared hesitant and indecisive in his running, often cutting unnecessarily and waiting too long to take off with the ball.
None of this is to take away from the incredible talent that Willis is or to minimize his status as the greatest QB Liberty has ever seen. In fact, these issues are emblematic of that fact. Willis is without a doubt the best player on the roster and he is being asked to do too much. He is being asked to take the entire offense on his back (or his arm and legs more accurately) and carry them to victory with an ineffective and at times non-existent ground game, a paper-mache O-line, and a wide receiver group, which although speedy and talented, lacks height and size. In such a situation it is no surprise that Willis feels like he has to go for it all every single play. There is also a fact that many overlook, and that is the fact that Willis is a young QB, making only his second season start in his first full season of football as a starter without COVID protocols that like it or not, played into the advantage of smaller schools like Liberty and reduced the competitive edge of more established teams.
Everyone and everything seems to be pushing Willis towards the draft, but while he definitely has the raw talent, he lacks the decision-making right now that is needed at the next level. Willis’ struggles down the stretch already have him dropping on many draft boards and he’s likely looking at riding the bench for a while at the next level while some team tries to (in the words of the announcers on Saturday) “fix his issues.” Willis could still turn things around with a flawless execution in the Army game next week and the presumed bowl game after that but the further this season drags on the more and more it looks like coming back for one more year is the right call for Willis’ long term success.
The second major issue for this offense was drive-killing penalties. Liberty had 7 penalties called on them for a total of 76 lost yards and the majority of these were on the offense. Most devastating though was when these penalties occurred. Liberty had at least 3 drives killed by penalties. The first was on the second drive of the game after Liberty had picked up a huge third and long to move LU into Louisiana territory. Liberty got called for hands to the face on that play and Liberty ended up having to punt the ball away. The second was on the drive following the first UL TD, where Liberty had holding called on them, backing them up deep and disallowing any attempt to slow Louisiana’s momentum (Louisiana would score again on the next drive). The third and most egregious set of penalties came right after Willis had punched it in from 1st and goal. Liberty got called for holding and was pushed back to 1st and goal from the 13, a second holding call pushed Liberty back to 1st and goal from the 23, 2 ensuing sacks on Willis forced Liberty to punt on 4th and goal from the UL 44. Truly one of the most bizarre series of plays in college football history that saw a TD wiped off the board which would have made it a one-score at the half and a chance to start the second half with momentum.
The final issue for Liberty this game (and it has honestly been one of the main shortcomings for Liberty all season) was the play calling. Last season’s team was basically the same team as this season as far as personnel and one could argue that this team is better with the incoming FBS level recruits and transfers. However, this year’s team is 7-4 and last year’s team was 10-1, why? A big part of it is certainly the increased difficulty of the schedule this year but a bigger part of it is that last year Hugh Freeze showed his true offensive genius by taking the pieces that he had on offense and adapting his game plan to fit them with a variety of RPO concepts, quick throws, and creative play calling. This season Liberty has done just the opposite. Game in and game out Freeze has failed to adapt the offense to the strengths and weaknesses of his team and instead has insisted on attempting to shove the players into the offensive scheme.
Take Saturday’s game as an example. Liberty’s O-line has proved they are unable to cover their assignments and give Willis any time, additionally, Liberty lacks tall receivers that can win one on one deep balls on the outside. What Liberty does have is speedy wide receivers who work well in the slot and a running QB who throws the fastball well. What would you expect Liberty to do in light of these facts? If you said run an RPO spread-option style attack like that which Coastal runs that gives Willis opportunities to hit his receivers on short throws or take off with the ball you would be wrong. What Liberty did on Saturday which they have done all season is try to force the deep ball or long-developing routes, give Willis a few dump-off or short pass options, and call only a few true RPO plays the entire game. Is it any wonder Willis was 14/34 throwing and sacked 7 times?
Additionally, after Liberty had their best rushing game of the year with 284 yards on the ground against Ole Miss, one would have thought that Liberty would have exploited that newfound growth against a Louisiana team that gives up over 140 yards on the ground per game. However, Liberty only attempted to run it on the ground with their backs 13 times and as a whole, the ground game was only responsible for 87 yards, LU’s second-lowest performance of the season. Mack who seemed to have finally found his stride against Ole Miss with 98 yards on 19 carries for an average of 5.1 yards per rush, touched the ball only twice as Liberty again reverted to the completely ineffective running-by-committee approach which has shown no success this season instead of the one main back format which has served LU well the few times they’ve gone with it. Maybe Hugh Freeze saw a weakness in UL’s coverage that he wanted to exploit through the air but even in that case you still need a running game to balance the attack and Louisiana had no problems shutting down Liberty’s one-dimensional focus in Saturday’s matchup.
Hugh Freeze is clearly still the creative genius that he always was as evidenced by a brilliant trick play (one of the few Liberty has called all season) that saw the wide receiver Stubbs hit the RB Louis on a beautifully thrown 44-yard pass, or one of the few RPO options ran all game that gave Willis a wide receiver on the outside to throw to who Willis used to bate the defender into covering the pass before Willis took off for a 23-yard scramble (his longest of the night). The play calling is there but this season Hugh Freeze has tried to jam Liberty into a traditional, run-oriented offense that emphasizes the deep ball and Liberty just doesn’t have any of the parts for that style of attack. If Liberty doesn’t want to end the season on a 3 game (or more with the bowl) skid, Freeze is going to have to toss out this by-the-numbers playbook and find the same creative energy that made Liberty such a dangerous weapon last season.
Louisiana put up 42 points so how may you ask did Liberty get an A on defense in this one? Well, the answer to that is in the statistics. Liberty held UL to 296 total yards, which if you take out 113 yards which came on 4 big plays, it comes down to 183 yards. Against a team that averages well over 400 yards per game that is a fantastic defensive effort. Liberty held UL to 3 and out or turnover-on-downs on 7 out UL’s 12 drives (not counting the meaningless kill the clock plays at the end of the halves). Additionally, Liberty held UL to 3/13 on third-down conversions, managed 3 sacks and 7 tackles for loss, and kept UL scoreless twice inside the redzone.
Liberty lost this game but not because of their defense. Yes, Liberty’s D gave up a few drives, but that was after an entire game where the offense continually came up short and asked the D time and time again to take over. In fact, the defense isn’t even primarily responsible for 2 of Louisiana’s 6 scores as one of the Cajun’s touchdowns resulted from a blocked punt and a second followed a shanked punt that set up UL with a very short field in Liberty’s territory. The fact that Liberty, drive after drive, came up strong and forced UL to punt (5 punts by UL), kick (UL missed their lone field goal), or turn it over on downs and gave their offense every chance to win this game causes me to award this incredible defense an A overall on the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Liberty’s special teams directly or indirectly gave up two scores and if not for Liberty’s incredible defense would have given up a third. It started when Demario Douglas failed to verbalize a “Peter, Peter” call (what punt returners call when they need to tell everyone to get out of the way of a punt) causing the punt to glance off a Liberty return man and Douglas was unable to corral it, resulting in a turnover inside the Liberty 20. Luckily an incredible redzone stand and bad kick saved Liberty from giving up any points, but they would not be so lucky on the next error. Aidan Alves shanked a punt that sailed out of bounds at the Liberty 41 after traveling only 28 yards. Liberty’s D was unable to come up with the stop this time (though not for lack of trying with 2 forced fourth-down conversions) and a 10 play 41-yard drive which saw Louisiana get on the board first. Liberty then turned to Max Morgan to take over punting duties but on his third punt he mishandled a snap, and instead of falling on it and taking the loss, he attempted to punt it with a defender in his face and he fumbled the ball which UL picked up and returned for a score. It was a special teams nightmare for Hugh Freeze who has been unwilling or unable to address the glaring problems within the unit this season. Although there were some positives out of the unit such as the trick play to open the game where Liberty lateraled the ball on the kick return for a 42-yard return, overall, the unit’s performance was a disaster which helped UL establish early momentum and points.
How did Liberty perform against my keys to the game?
1. SHUTDOWN THE BIG PLAY: B+
UL lives and dies on that big play and for the most part, Liberty was very successful at preventing it. Louisiana got off a few (like I said, 113 yards divided between 4 big plays) but overall Liberty’s defense did a great job of staying home and not allowing UL to burn them on the ground or through the air.
2. ESTABLISH THE RUN: F
Liberty put up only 87 rushing yards against Louisiana, their second-lowest of the year, despite coming off of a 284 yard game against Ole Miss. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of execution as Louis and Green looked great in their few touches, it was more play-calling that practically tossed out the running game completely.
3. AVOID THE UNFORCED ERRORS: F
Liberty had 7 penalties for minus 76 yards, killing 3 separate drives and taking one definite touchdown off the board for LU. Additionally, Willis was picked off twice, Liberty fumbled the ball once on offense, muffed a punt return, and fumbled the ball on a punt. The title of this game was “If it could go wrong it did go wrong” and with the number of unforced errors that occurred, it is only thanks to the defense that the final score wasn’t much worse.
We all knew this was going to be a tough stretch of games to end the season and there was a chance Liberty was going to drop a few, but I think most of us envisioned Liberty playing their best and being beaten by simply better teams. However, that isn’t what’s happening here. Liberty is under-performing in these crucial matchups and at the end of the day beating themselves far more than the other team is. From slow starts to poor decisions, to lack of discipline to unforced turnovers to you name it, Liberty is starting to fall apart down the stretch and that’s the most frustrating thing to watch. It’s not the loss that hurts the most, it’s knowing that Liberty could have won and gave the game away.
Liberty has one more game, one more chance to get to 8-4 which would still be a significant accomplishment for a team on its 4th season in the FBS and would help make the Flames bowl resume a lot more appealing. It’s senior night as these seniors are part of a historic class who helped Liberty transition from the FCS and set them up on a strong footing in the FBS. The game is on the back-end of Thanksgiving break so student participation is going to be lacking, so Liberty needs every Flames fan that lives in any kind of driving distance to be at the game to send these seniors off in proper fashion and help LU get this win against a tough Army team which came close to knocking off Wake Forrest and Wisconsin this year. Liberty needs something to get out of this funk and get back on track to close out the season and I think a packed-out raucous Williams Stadium might just be the ticket. I don’t live in driving range but I’m flying in anyway. Mr. Exclamation Point will be there to see these historic seniors off. Will you?
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point