SUMMARY: Liberty 28 vs ULM 31
Let me try and sum up what most of you are feeling: How could this happen? What did I just watch? How can this be the same team that went 10-1 and beat Coastal last season? What went wrong? Liberty had more yards than ULM (almost twice as many rushing yards) completed more third-down conversions, and controlled the time of possession by 5+ minutes. However, Liberty also threw 3 interceptions, had 3 times as many penalty yards, and threw for less than 200 yards for the first time this season. There are many, many little things that added up to a loss in this one, but the main reason LU lost is because they came in over-confident and under-prepared, and if this game proved anything it’s that you can’t overlook anyone, even when you are favored by 30+ points.
F might seem harsh for an offense that put up 386 yards and 4 scores but almost all of that was Malik Willis. Willis rushed for 157 yards and 2 scores and added 135 yards passing and a touchdown. Now as impressive as Willis’ running abilities were tonight and have been all season, you will notice something glaringly wrong with how I worded Willis’ stats. I said that he “added 135 yards passing,” when listing a QB’s main contribution it should be the passing game that draws the focus, and the ground game is a compliment to that effort but in Liberty’s offense, it’s the opposite. Lacking depth (or height for that matter) in the wide receiver room and working around a struggling offensive line, Liberty’s entire offensive game plan is built on Willis’ legs. A QB run game can be a weapon, but it can’t be the only weapon and Liberty’s offensive weaknesses were severely exposed tonight as Liberty struggled to consistently move the ball downfield and could not rely on its ground game to set up (or convert) short-yardage situations.
A star QB is a recipe for success, but he can’t substitute for good coaching and Liberty’s offensive play calling was certainly missing the innovative spark that usually characterizes Hugh Freeze’s offenses. The biggest fault of today’s play calling is that Liberty seemed determined (almost desperate) to prove that its O-line could move the ball in the running game. Over and over again Liberty would line up and run the ball straight up the middle with hardly any wrinkle in an offense that may have reminded some longtime fans of that from the Gill years. Most notably, with the ball at the 2-yard line after a brilliant special teams play, Liberty ran the ball right into the teeth of the ULM defense 4 times and came away with no points. Hugh Freeze was probably viewing this game as a practice game to work out some kinks before Liberty’s biggest game of the season in 3 weeks but when the game plan clearly wasn’t working adjustments should have been made and what few adjustments Liberty made were too little too late in this one.
Of course, we can’t close out this section without talking about Willis’ turnovers and general miscues in the passing game. Willis statistically had the worst passing game of his career with just 135 yards passing (he did throw for 2 yards less in the first game of his LU career against WKU but he also didn’t throw any picks in that game so this one still ranks lower). Willis threw 3 interceptions, was sacked 4 times, and completed just 57.1% of his passes. It was highly apparent that Willis was struggling to adapt to the absence of his main receiving target Demario Douglas (526 yards this season, over a third of Willis’ total passing yards) who suited up but did not play after exiting the game late last week with an injury received on a punt return. The rest of Liberty’s receiving corps tried to step up, but none were able to fill the role of Douglas and in fact, no Liberty receiver had more than 35 yards or 3 catches all day. However, Willis is considered an NFL-caliber QB and Hugh Freeze is considered a Power 5 level coach, and neither a QB of Willis’ caliber nor a coach with Hugh Freeze’s play-calling abilities should ever be dependent on one wide receiver.
Each of the interceptions are actually a perfect metaphor for Liberty’s overall performance and mindset in this game. The first pick was a lazy throw away by Willis on the run where he tried to toss it out of bounds but ended up throwing it straight to a defender in the end zone. This unfocused and lackadaisical effort by Willis was reflective of the overall mood of the team in general which seemed to come in assuming a win and for a large chunk of this game just seemed to be going through the motions.
The second pick was made after Willis threw blind into double coverage on a short comeback route by Stubbs which was thrown right to the Warhawk defender and easily picked off. Willis assumed Stubbs would be open on a play that Liberty frequently runs and threw the ball kind of just assuming it would work out. Many of Liberty’s play calls today (especially in the run game) seemed to reflect an attitude that they would just work out just because Liberty was “superior” to their opponent.
The third pick was just a straight-up overthrow of a wide-open receiver which could have set Liberty up in field goal range and this last play by the offense perfectly symbolized the consistent lack of execution that plagued the Flames all day.
Liberty held ULM to 225 yards passing, 140 yards rushing, and 5/13 on third downs but what killed Liberty against ULM defensively was the big plays, especially in the passing game. I have pointed out all season that Liberty has a very porous passing defense that may play well overall but gives up far too many big plays and that finally came back to haunt LU on Saturday. Liberty gave up over 11 passes of 10+ yards including 2 of +30 yards and 2 scores through the air. In fact, the 2 touchdown passes that ULM completed were both to wide-open receivers on busted coverage plays where there wasn’t a single defender within 10 yards of the receiver. Liberty also gave up a few big plays in the run game (notably a 40-yard score by ULM’s lead back Andrew Henry) but the main reason Liberty lost this game defensively was due to the opportunities allowed in the air.
Liberty may have given up a lot of yards and points in this one, but nearly all the yards and all the points came prior to the fourth quarter. It is also important to remember that almost a third of ULM’s yards came on just 3 plays. In the fourth quarter, Liberty’s defense came up huge with 3 consecutive 3 and outs and held ULM to just 3 points in the fourth. Liberty was consistent aside from a few miscues throughout 3 quarters and dominant defensively in the fourth. Despite the 31 points allowed by the D, it was Liberty’s struggling offense that ultimately lost this one for the Flames.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
The highlight of the day for the special teams was blocking a field goal and returning it to the 2-yard line. As the resulting drive would prove, those 2 yards would end up being critical as Liberty could not punch it in from close range but it was still a huge moment for a special teams unit that has been much maligned this season.
As far as overall performance the punting was again solid by Morgan who had a 51 yard long on the day. The return game was ok with a 19-yard punt return by Stubbs and a 28-yard return by Duron Lowe. There were a few miscues from the unit, with Stubbs dropping a kick return briefly and only able to get to the 12 because of the mishandle, and Liberty’s punt return team was lucky to not extend a ULM drive with what should have been called a roughing the kicker penalty (the LU defender hit the plant leg) but was incorrectly only called running into the kicker.
However, the special teams unit was more notable for what they didn’t do than what they did do. Liberty did not attempt a field goal Saturday despite two solid opportunities to do so and with a 3 point loss that becomes a critical point. Hugh Freeze has shown no trust in his kicking game for good reason this season but he has a new freshman kicker at the helm who is showing some promise. Early in the game Freeze passed up an opportunity to attempt a 47 yarder, despite Beck making a 37-yard kick last week which looked good from at least 45. Instead, Freeze opted to go for the 4th and 10 conversion attempt which predictably did not work out. Freeze may have no confidence in the kicking game and may be seeing things in practice that cause him to doubt it further, but Beck clearly has potential and the worst-case scenario would have left Liberty with a better idea of his range and abilities vs attempting a low probability fourth-down conversion which Freeze’s beloved metrics would have told him to attempt the field goal instead.
The second missed opportunity came after the blocked field goal return to the 2 and 3 drives straight up the middle had resulted in no yards gained. The decision was perhaps a little more justifiable considering the situation at the time with the score 0-0 and Liberty needing to prove it had the ability to push it in from short range but the subsequent fourth-down stop was a huge rallying moment for the ULM Warhawks and gave them hope early that they could win this. The decision is also notable because it is the second time this season that Freeze’s Flames have been unable to punch it in from fourth and goal and ended up losing by a field goal.
HOW DID LIBERTY PERFORM AGAINST MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. GET WILLIS BACK INTO IT: C
Liberty certainly tried to fulfill this key with heavy use of the short passing game and a focus on running the ball (unsuccessfully). However, Willis continued his slump in this one with another sub 60% passing performance and another 3 interceptions to add to his 3 from last week. In fact, coming into last week’s game Willis had completed 71% of his passes with 11 TDs and 0 INTs. In the last two games, Willis has completed just 57% of his passes thrown, just 3 TDs, and has 6 INTs. Liberty will need to find a way to get their star QB back on track soon before their whole season goes off the rails.
2. SEE WHERE THE MACK TRAIN CAN TAKE YOU: F
Mack looked really good on the first drive with 4 carries for 26 yards and looked like he was picking up steam and then Liberty did what they have done with all their running backs this season just as they are picking up momentum, pushed him to the sideline. Mack ended up completing the game with just 8 carries and 32 yards and no Liberty running back managed more than 35 yards rushing. The decision to shelve Mack in favor of the repeatedly failed 3 back rotation was another questionable call in a litany of questionable decisions made by the coaching staff in the loss.
3. TRY OUT BECK’S LEG: F
Liberty had a clear opportunity to try out Beck’s range and ignored it. At this point, the kicking game isn’t even in the playbook for Hugh Freeze.
This wasn’t so much a wake-up call as it was a cold shower. The only true trend that came back to bite LU in this one was the holes in the coverage against the passing game. Liberty flat out didn’t play like Liberty today and looked the least prepared of any team that Freeze has fielded during his time at LU.
Liberty may be 4 years into their FBS tenure, but this isn’t your typical 4 year FBS team, this is an LU team with a former Power 5 coach who has been a coaching candidate for multiple Power 5 openings, a first-round draft pick contender at QB and not to mention a multi-million dollar athletic budget. How many other sub-5 year FBS programs can say that? Liberty is far closer to most established American or Mountain West conference teams than they are anyone from C-USA, the Sunbelt, or the MAC, and this loss should sting.
Now a lot of people are trying to say this is proof that LU isn’t at the level we thought they were and that is not the takeaway people should have from this game. The takeaway from this game is that Liberty was caught napping hard, and the coaching staff failed to prepare their game plan or their team to face the opponent this week. Liberty is still one of the top G5 programs, Hugh Freeze is still one of the top coaches in the FBS and Willis is still a first-round caliber QB (although his stock has certainly fallen after this performance), but this should be a wakeup call in the sense that Liberty got a harsh reminder that on any given Saturday anyone can beat anyone, even a team of LU’s level.
The coaching staff and the team have likely been peaking ahead to the “gauntlet” at the end of the season against 2 Top 25 caliber teams and a good Army program, but after today’s sobering defeat you can bet that Liberty will be taking the one week at a time mentality Hugh Freeze espouses up at press conferences seriously. I expect that this loss will stick around in the minds of all the players on the field today for the rest of their time at LU and I don’t expect Liberty to get caught flat-footed like they were tonight for as long as any of the players who experienced it are on the roster.
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point.
*all photos courtesy Liberty Athletics