GAME SUMMARY: LIBERTY 14 VS NC STATE 15
A game that many thought would be an offensive shoot out turned into a defensive grudge match with 22 out of the 27 combined drives for both teams ending in turnovers, punts or missed field goals. Liberty’s defense played their hearts out, but in the end, it just wasn’t enough as Liberty saw their 39-yard field goal attempt blocked in the final minutes. NC State took the ball back and managed to get the first down they needed to bring on the victory formation and seal the win.
Liberty’s offense looked stagnant for the most part against an NC State front that was obviously well prepared coming into this game. Malik Willis had only thrown one interception prior to this matchup but that changed Saturday as he threw 3 interceptions on plays that were a combination of confusing coverage from the Wolfpack and errant throws from Willis. Overall, Willis was 13/32 for 172 yards, 2 TDs and 3 picks. Willis also had his lowest running yardage total of the season, gaining only 44 yards on 15 carries (he was sacked 3 times). As easy as it may be to blame Willis in this one, the blame must truly rest on the play calling. Liberty abandoned their highly successful game plan from the first 8 games, where they relied on mixing in the run with the shorter passing game to the perimeter which allowed LU to set up throws downfield and instead seemed to be going for the deep ball on almost every play. Willis had decent time in the pocket, but the routes were so long developing that he was usually taking pressure and being forced to escape before he could look to throw. NC State did an outstanding job of eye discipline and bottling up the slippery Willis and only allowed him to break out a couple of times.
It wasn’t just Willis struggling to get things going Saturday, as none of the LU backs seemed to be able to gain traction against the NC State line. Mack led all backs with 49 yards on 12 carries but Pickett and Louis only had 14 yards between them and there were no rushing TDs scored by LU. The biggest blunder by the Liberty run game was committed by Pickett after a nice punt by NC State hemmed Liberty back inside their own 5. Picket got the ball in the endzone and with a defender coming at him up the middle, attempted to cut outside instead of just pushing ahead to get the ball across the goal line. Picket was cut down immediately on the cut and ended up giving NC State a safety. Liberty ended up only losing by one point so the safety not only caused a huge momentum shift but also ended up being the difference in the close-fought matchup.
This was the best defensive performance I have ever seen by a Liberty team! Liberty held NC State (who was averaging over 30 points per game coming into this one) to only 13 points (two of the 15 points came from the safety which was the fault of the offense). Drive after drive, Liberty’s defense managed to keep LU in the game through a combination of relentless pass rush and outstanding coverage. Liberty did give up a few big plays and had difficulty in the first half and part of the second stopping NC States dual backs in Person and Knight (the duo rushed for 179 yards and 2 TDs) but Liberty adjusted well in the second half and demonstrated an exceptional bend but don’t break philosophy throughout the game. Liberty’s defense was especially key in the final minutes of the game as they forced a punt by NC State to give Liberty’s offense a chance with 4:12 left on the clock.
Key defensive players for the Flames were Scruggs and Butler who combined for 17 total tackles and Safety Cedrick Stone who had the Flames’ lone turnover of the day, picking off a ball near the endzone to end a threatening NC State drive.
Liberty may have lost this game, but it wasn’t because of their defense. Liberty proved they have fully arrived at the FBS level today with a defensive performance which would have made any Power Five coach proud. Any team can figure out a creative offense that allows them to win games in shootouts and to surprise as the little guy, but the mark of a great team is its ability to get stops on defense. Liberty held NC State to 154 yards passing and 167 yards rushing in a performance that was truly second to none.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Liberty’s special teams performance was actually pretty good overall. Punter Aidan Alves had 5 punts for an average of 45.8 yards and almost had one punt stop at the 1 but the coverage unit knocked it into the endzone. Shedro Louis showed some nice speed on kick returns with a long of 35 and Douglas had a long of 12 on punt returns. The kickoff coverage (besides messing up as previously stated), performed well and held NC State to a long of 6 on punt returns and an average of 18 on kickoff returns. However, in the biggest moment, when it mattered most, Liberty’s special teams unit came up short when Barbir’s 39-yard field goal that would have given LU the lead was blocked.
HOW DID LIBERTY FULFILL MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. BALL SECURITY: A
Liberty turned the ball over 3 times, but it was in the form of interceptions, not fumbles. Since I was defining this key in reference to Liberty’s fumble problems I am forced to reluctantly give LU an A here as they did not fumble once. Liberty actually had great ball security when running with the football and it was clear that Willis was emphasizing protecting the football which is a great sign for Liberty fans going forward. Unfortunately, the great ball carrying awareness by Willis was accompanied by several inaccurate and poorly read throws that resulted in 3 interceptions so the net result was still negative for the Flames.
2. MORE CONSISTENCY IN THE KICKING GAME: F
Barbir is now 2/8 on kicks between 29 and 49 and 7/7 on kicks from all other distances. The biggest problem with Barbir’s kick this week was that he kicked the 39 yarder like it was a 50+ yard field goal. As a result, the kick was a line drive low kick which ended up getting blocked. I still believe that Barbir has the potential to develop into an incredible kicker for LU because of his leg strength but it’s going to take a full off-season of kicking every day before he can live up to his full potential.
3. EMPHASIZE THE SHORT GAME: F
It was so frustrating to watch Liberty drop back and attempt to throw it deep down the field on almost every single play. Willis didn’t throw (or Freeze didn’t call) a single screen pass, pass to the back or shovel pass. Additionally, passes into the flat or outside were severely lacking. NC State did pretty much exactly what I said they would, which was to send constant blitzes while keeping 1-2 high safeties over the top to disrupt (or pick off) any deep-ball attempts. The few times that Liberty did go to the underneath passing game they were able to move the ball effectively and two of those drives ended in TDs but those drives were few and far between. Willis looked off all day because he was never able to settle into a rhythm with his receivers and because he was constantly taking pressure as the long routes took time to develop. In a game that Liberty had really two weeks to prep for, after facing non-threat FCS opponent Western Carolina last week, it was truly baffling to see the lack of creativity and consistency on the part of a Liberty offense which has averaged over 40 points and 490 yards per game.
The win streak is over and a lot of Liberty fans (myself included) are feeling the normal letdown that comes for any team when they suffer the first loss of the season (which is especially painful when that team was on an 8-0 streak). However, if you would have told me at the start of the season that Liberty would be 8-1 with two ACC wins and their only loss being a one-point defeat to an NC State team that almost beat Miami, I would never have believed you. This is a rebuilding year for Coach Freeze. Many analysts had Liberty going 6-6 or at the most 7-5 this year. This is the first year that Freeze is developing his offense around a mobile QB and it is also only the first year with an all-Freeze Freshman recruiting class. Liberty is still on track for the best season in school history and has a chance to end the season with a win over their rival Coastal Carolina. Liberty is 8-1 and could finish the season 11-1 with a bowl win if they can get back to their winning ways from the first 8 games. Liberty has a great opportunity to get back on track next week against a UMass team that is 0-3 currently and giving up 38.7 points per game. The true character and strength of a team is shown by how they handle adversity. I expect Liberty to come back strong next week and even stronger the week after as LU looks to prove that they still deserve to be considered among the top teams in the country.
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point
*all photos courtesy Liberty Athletics