SUMMARY: Liberty 41 vs MTSU 13
Liberty turned the ball over 3 times and completed just 57% of their passing attempts yet came away from Homecoming with a 28 point margin of victory. Every team has down games and Liberty certainly had one this week, at least offensively, but it is certainly a testament to the coaching staff and the level of play that Liberty has risen to in just 4 years in the FBS where even in a sub-par performance they can put up 400+ yards and 41 points.
Liberty had an up and down performance offensively (more correctly Malik Willis had an up and down performance) but lacked consistency throughout. In-between highlight-reel plays by Malik where he avoided what seemed like the entire MTSU defense to throw the ball downfield, were 3 picks and numerous overthrows to wide-open receivers. One definite sign of improvement however was the O-line which managed to open up holes in the run game and gave Willis plenty of time in the pocket (on most plays). While the O-lines performance certainly had something to do with the caliber of opponent, it was encouraging to see glimpses of improvement from a unit that has struggled mightily this year.
As mentioned, Willis did not have his best day Saturday. Willis threw 2 interceptions on back to back drives in the second half and if the game had been close, Hugh Freeze would likely have considered benching his struggling QB (Oklahoma did the same to their Heisman candidate Spencer Rattler vs Texas), but with MTSU posing no real threat on offense and Liberty ahead two scores, Freeze chose to keep his star QB in and let him work through his issues. It turned out to be the right call for Freeze as Willis used his legs to right his performance, led two scoring drives (including a rushing TD of his own), and completed an incredible pass for a 2-point conversion where he avoided multiple tackles to find the open man in the endzone while on the run.
Willis may have struggled today but his top receiving target Demario Douglas. Douglas accounted for 156 of Liberty’s 222 receiving yards and recorded his second straight 100-yard receiving game. Douglas highlighted his performance with an impressive diving catch for 49 yards between two MTSU defenders on one of the few perfectly thrown balls from Willis.
Another part of the reason Liberty was able to overcome Willis’ struggles was a late revival in the running game behind Joshua Mack. Mack only had 7 yards coming into the second half but rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown to record the most yards in a single game this season by any LU running back. In fact, had almost as many yards in this game (91), as he had all season coming in (109). It was also Mack’s second straight game with a rushing score as the Mack Attack seems to be picking up steam.
Liberty’s defense had a standard performance this week where they gave up a lot of yards, 265 (mostly through the air) but very few points as they held MTSU to 13 points on 13 drives. The main reason for Liberty’s defensive success was their D-line which established themselves once again after two subpar games against the run in back-to-back weeks. Liberty held MTSU to just 35 yards rushing, recorded 3 sacks and 6 tackles for loss, and also forced a fumble which was recovered for a safety.
However, Liberty certainly has a few things to work out in the secondary which gave up 9 plays of 10+ yards or more, including a 31 yard TD pass. While Liberty did manage to make the defensive stops when it mattered and held MTSU’s QB to a 50% completion rate, the gaping holes that opened up at times in the passing game should raise some alarms as Liberty gets set in just 4 weeks to play Ole Miss QB, Matt Corral, who is completing close to 300 yards per game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
It may be too soon for this, but I think I want to get Brayden Beck’s jersey. The LU kicker performed the impossible this week and made a kick from between the 30-50 yards, a range that Liberty has made just 7/20 kicks from going back the last two seasons. Beck struggled last week in his first start with a blocked PAT and a lucky knuckleball that barely went through from short range, but with his kick from 37 he has brought life into the kicking game and perhaps the hope that LU might be able to develop the kicking game into a reliable weapon for this Hugh Freeze attack.
Aside from the kicking game, the other highlight for this Flames team was the punting game which continues to be strong under true freshman punter Max Morgan. Morgan excelled Saturday with 4 punts for 216 yards, averaging 54 yards per punt, a long of 62, and had two downed inside the 20. With a true freshman punter who can boot for 62 yards and a true freshman kicker who can apparently hit from 30-50, the future truly couldn’t be brighter for this unit which may have just kicked off the golden age of LU special teams.
HOW DID LIBERTY PERFORM AGAINST MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. STAY ON THE GAS: A
While Liberty might have mishandled the execution, the intent was clearly there with 30 passing attempts, numerous deep shots, and an up-tempo attack throughout the game.
2. SEE WHAT ONE BACK CAN DO: B
Liberty persisted with their multi-back approach in the first half (9 carries split evenly between all 3 backs) and only accounted for 48 RB rushing yards, However, after a few successful runs by Mack, Liberty decided to stick with their hot running back and allowed Mack to carry for 11 of the 15 RB runs and he exploded for 87 yards. Imagine what Mack could have totaled if he’d had a whole game to grind out against this defense and not just one half? Hopefully, Mack’s success in the run game in the second half of this one will push Liberty to a one back look under Mack and turn to Louis and Green on a more situational basis (passing downs, goal line, change of pace, etc.).
3. SHOW US SALTER: N/A
Willis’ struggles and Freeze’s desire to help his QB iron out his difficulties so he didn’t go into the week with a bad performance hanging over him, meant that despite Liberty leading 34-13 by the end of the third, Willis didn’t exit the game until about the 3-minute point in the forth. If Liberty was going to try Salter, they would have wanted a full quarter and not just one drive so it made sense to go with Bennett to finish out the game. Hopefully, Liberty can pull away earlier in a few of their next matchups so that Liberty can have the option to give their highly recruited transfer a look.
Liberty played well enough for the win in this one, but Hugh Freeze can’t be happy after what he saw out of his star QB in Saturday’s matchup. Hopefully, this was just an off-game for Willis and not representative of deeper issues, which I think is the case. Willis will likely come into next week’s matchup with a chip on his shoulder and eager to prove the MTSU game was a fluke. UL Monroe is likely to present a similar level of opponent to the one Liberty just beat and hopefully, next week will give LU fans the chance to watch the blowout many expected from this week’s game.
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point.