SUMMARY: LIBERTY 56 VS E-MICHIGAN 20
This graduating senior class now has 3 Bowl wins, a 31-17 overall record, 2 Power 5 wins, wins against teams from 4/5 Group of 5 conferences (including 9 wins against the conference they will be moving to in 2023, Conference USA), and taken Liberty from an FCS school to a competitive FBS program in just 4 years!
What this team has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time is not just remarkable, it’s historic as LU is one of just 2 schools to go 3/3 in their first 3 bowl games and also the only school to get 3 bowl wins and a 10 win season in their first 4 seasons in the FBS. The future may be hazy with LU’s top playmaker Malik Willis moving onto a promising career in the NFL and numerous losses on both sides of the ball, but the foundation that this class has built and the legacy that they leave at LU means that through that haze there shines a light because the future is indeed bright for LU.
I was blessed to attend the bowl game since it was only an hour and a half away from me (and as someone who lives 773 miles away from LU’s campus I cherish the games I’m able to attend), so the review you are going to read is from an eye in the stands perspective, but I want to first say something about the fans before I get into my review of the game. I have at times been critical of LU’s fan base in lack of support given to the team in certain key games throughout the season, however, in a bowl game over 800 miles from Liberty’s campus, a week before Christmas, against a mid-level G5 team, Liberty faithful showed up and far outnumbered the few Eastern Michigan fans in attendance.
For a game at this level with this kind of matchup, the E-Michigan turnout is a much more common occurrence, but the fact that Liberty was able to fill their section of the stadium and make an audible difference in the game shows the enormous support and dedication that this school’s fans have for their team that far outweighs the usual support a program has at this early stage in their FBS career. I have no doubt that in the not too distant future Liberty will become well known as a school that not only packs out its own stadium but that one that brings the home environment on the road and especially during bowl season. Thank you to all those that came out and helped Liberty get this dominant win to send these seniors off the right way.
Liberty scored on 8/13 drives of the game, including 4 straight TDs in the first half to build a 33-10 lead (an additional score came from a pick 6). Liberty amassed 528 yards of total offense, only turned the ball over one time (and it was after the backups came in), and looked absolutely unstoppable as LU cruised to a 56-20 win. The great thing about Saturday’s performance is that Hugh Freeze finally got the balanced game he’s been looking for all season. Nearly half of Liberty’s 528 yards came through the air with both Green and Louis finding success on the ground (finally) and Liberty worked the deep ball to perfection with 3 scores on passes of 20 yards or more and 5 different players with receptions of 20 or more yards. Hugh Freeze has been trying to establish this style of offense all season and with 3 weeks to prepare and a whole season to look back on, it seems he finally got the message across and can head into the offseason with exactly the tape he needs to hammer home what he wants to see from the team in 2022.
Despite career performances from the likes of TJ Green (88 yards rushing and a TD to earn offensive MVP), highlight reel catches from Daniels, Shaa, and Stubbs and a solid O-line performance for really the first time this season (only 2 sacks allowed), the player that draws the most attention in this game and rightfully so is Malik Willis. After throwing picks in every one of the last 3 games of the regular season (6 of his 12 picks on the year), rushing for over 40 yards only once in the previous 5 games (including a -8 yards performance against North Texas), scoring only two touchdowns on the ground in those 5 games, and throwing for under 200 yards in 2/3 last games of the season, Willis pulled himself out of his slump to throw for 231 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and rush for 58 yards and two touchdowns (including a 35 yards scoring run).
The reason I detail the disappointing statistical finish to the regular season for Willis isn’t to draw attention to it but to highlight how big of a deal it was for him to have the game he did Saturday. First impressions are always emphasized but in the sporting world, it’s oftentimes the last impression that is the most important, and Willis’ performance Saturday doesn’t just mean that his team walked away with a win but it means that he gets to walk away with his head held high and the right lasting impression on the fan base. Willis’ bowl MVP performance will also leave a strong impression with NFL scouts who had begun to sour slightly on the dynamic QB (even though I would argue that much of Willis’ struggles came from outside factors such as poor O-line performance, dropped passes, and questionable play calls). Willis now gets to leave LU with his head held high, no clouds overshadowing him, and most importantly no distractions as he prepares for a promising and hopefully long NFL career.
It wasn’t just an incredible offensive performance in this one that got Liberty the win, the offensive explosion was mirrored by an equally dominant defensive outing by LU’s D which displayed its typical bend but don’t break style of play. LU allowed 379 yards of total offense but held E-Michigan to just 3 offensive scores on 14 drives, only one of which was a touchdown. The most impressive stat, however, is that Liberty held the Eagles to 6/17 on third-down conversions and stopped 3 fourth-down conversion attempts.
Linebacker Storey Jackson (9 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and partial sack), safety Javon Scruggs (8 tackles), and linebacker Rashaad Harding (8 tackles) all had excellent performances and rounded out the top three spots for most tackles in the game. However, the player with the biggest moment and the defensive MVP was graduate transfer safety Skyler Thomas who deflected a pass into the air on a safety corner blitz and managed to track the ball down after the deflection (one of the hardest things to do as a defender) to come down with the pick which he ran back for a TD! It was an early momentum boost for the Flames, coming just two plays after LU’s first touchdown of the game and contributed to a surge of offensive and defensive momentum that saw LU take a 3-7 score late in the first quarter and turn it into a demoralizing 56-20 blowout.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
The only truly negative to the Flames’ performance, and it’s been a trend all year, was the special teams. Liberty’s kicking struggles intensified Saturday with 3 missed extra points by two different kickers. One missed PAT was wiped out by a defensive offside call so only 2 missed PATs show on the stat sheet but Liberty ended up missing the ensuing PAT attempt anyway leading to the second record missed kick. LU also almost muffed a punt return which looked like it hit off of one of the blockers, forcing the return man Stubbs to grab the ball in very risky territory which he then fumbled and LU only just managed to recover. To round off the comedy of errors (yes I know I’ve used that phrase before), LU’s punter Aidan Alves saw his first punt shank left out of bounds for only 24 yards.
However, there were two performances that saved this grade from being a D or even an F and that was a great recovery by two of the early culprits Alves and Beck. Beck managed to nail a 43-yard field goal, Liberty’s longest of the season, and Alves kicked one of the most beautiful punts I’ve ever seen an LU punter make which traveled 63 yards and rolled up perfectly at the 1-yard line (really it was the 1” line). It goes without saying that Liberty will need to make special teams a point of emphasis over the offseason but plays like I just described show the talent is there, it just lacks consistency.
HOW DID LIBERTY PERFORM AGAINST MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES IN THE RUN GAME: A+
Liberty was definitely still building their offense off the success of the passing game, which I said they should keep doing, but I said Liberty needed to look to mix in the run game as E-Michigan would certainly provide them opportunities to find success and that’s exactly what happened on Saturday. If you take away QB runs, LU had 26 rushing attempts to 26 passing attempts which is the definition of a balanced attack, and Louis and Green capitalized on their opportunities as Liberty finally found success with the two back system and both backs finished the game with over 70 yards rushing, 6+ yards per carry (Green averaged 11) and runs of 15 yards or more. Overall Liberty put up 233 yards of rushing which for a team that was averaging less than 180 yards per game (and a lot of that was QB runs) is a significant accomplishment.
2. ESTABLISH THE SHORT PASS: B
Hard to rate this one since the deep ball worked out so well and Willis actually had time in the pocket for most of the game for really the first time this season. Liberty was definitely still emphasizing the deep ball and longer breaking routes but there were a few screens mixed in and throws to the back and Willis’ final TD of his career was on a 3 yard out-route so I’ll give LU a solid B on this and an asterisk that it didn’t end up mattering anyway with how well the deep ball worked out.
3. BOWL GAME CREATIVITY: B+
Liberty basically went out and ran their normal offense which turned out to be exactly what Liberty needed. There’s more than one way to make headlines and I thought mixing in some trick plays would bring some attention to the bowl with a blowout not expected but crushing a team by 36 points that you were only favored over by 9.5+ is ultimately the best way to do it. This key wasn’t just about trick plays though, it was also about bringing a spark and change of pace to an offense that has felt stagnant and predictable this season and Liberty certainly seemed to do that with a complex route tree, mixing in the TEs, and going to the ground game just enough to make the passing game more efficient but not enough to stall out the momentum of the drive. For me, Liberty certainly fulfilled the spirit of this key even if it did it without trick plays.
Liberty fans will have a lot of questions going into this offseason but for now, they can celebrate a fantastic bowl win and rest easy knowing the future is in good hands with a wealth of talent on the roster both currently on the team and coming to it through recruiting. What Willis did at LU was incredible and probably won’t be topped for a very long time (if ever). However, as sad as it is to see Willis go (and trust me, if it was up to me I’d want to see him playing at LU until he’s as old as Tom Brady), hopefully, this will issue in a new era for Liberty football where the team’s success is not based on one single player but the team as a whole. What Willis did was amazing and incredible and brought much-needed attention to a small school from Lynchburg but what Willis leaves behind is not just an unforgettable career but a team that he brought to the national spotlight and helped attract recruits that can bring LU success long after he’s gone. Willis’ legacy isn’t just wrapped up in one game or performance, it’s reflected in the status that LU has attained and the success it will achieve in the future. One shortage of Liberty football is ending, but the next stage promises to bring just as much excitement as the last. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Go Flames!
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point.