Summary: Liberty 35 vs North Texas 26
The score was LU 14- North Texas 26, Malik Willis had exited the game with an injury and seemed unlikely to return. Johnathan Bennett, after a hot start replacing Willis, had completed just 2 of his last 9 throws, the defense had just allowed an 89-yard scoring drive, the offense couldn’t seem to do anything right and the slump that LU found itself in last week with the loss to ULM seemed likely to continue, but then the impossible happened. Malik Willis came back out onto the field (right as the announcers were saying that Willis wasn’t coming back into the game) and Liberty proceeded to score 3 touchdowns in a row to take a 9 point lead and win the game.
For a team that seemed out of sync the whole season and failed on two second-half comeback attempts this season, to come back the way they did and get a win is honestly incredible. Maybe the game should never have been that close to begin with, but the fact that this team was able to right itself and come back to get the win should give hope to Flames fans that this team can still be something special this season.
The O-line owes Willis whatever the non-alcoholic equivalent of 20-six packs is. Against a defense that had only managed 11 sacks all season, Liberty gave up 6 sacks and 9 QB hurries, one of which resulted in Malik Willis exiting the game with an apparent foot injury. Willis actually finished the game for the first time this season with negative yards rushing despite scrambling multiple times for first downs due to total yardage lost in the sacks. If there is one main reason that Liberty was as close as they were to losing this game (or the reason they have struggled in general this season) it’s the offensive line.
It wasn’t just in pass blocking that the line struggled to win up front Saturday. Liberty only totaled 1.7 yards per carry for 43 total yards, their lowest of the season in both categories, and this is against a Mean Green rushing defense that was giving up over 200 yards a game and 4.8 yards per carry. Something is drastically wrong with the offensive line this season that neither personnel nor coaching seems able to fix. Liberty escaped with a win in this one, but it remains to be seen if there still won’t be any long-term effects from the O-line’s performance as Willis’ status will be closely monitored during the week.
The O-line wasn’t the only part of Liberty’s offense that struggled today as even when given time both QBs (Willis and Bennett) struggled to hit wide-open receivers. Bennett started out strong after replacing Willis and even finished off a touchdown drive with a beautiful 39-yard pass to CJ Daniels but appeared rattled on his following two drives and missed at least 3 wide-open receivers for guaranteed touchdowns. Willis looked much more confident coming back from his injury and was certainly the main reason LU was able to win, but even he looked off and overthrew two definite touchdowns, one of which would have been a 97-yard touchdown pass if completed.
However, despite the struggles, Flames fans should come away feeling good about their offense. The insertion of Bennett definitely brought a change of attitude in this one. Liberty entered this game obviously still shell shocked from the ULM loss. Liberty as a team overall played with very little energy or drive and most importantly appeared to have zero confidence. Too much confidence is a bad thing, as seen in the ULM game, but no confidence causes you to play down to the competition and that certainly happened, at least initially, in this one. Sometimes the best way to jump-start your flagging starters is to bring in a backup who has everything to prove and the injury to Willis forced LU to do just that. Bennett came in and looked poised and sharp for his first two drives and there was a definite shift in the energy from the team. It was just enough to give Liberty a spark, and when Willis was able to reenter the game he capitalized on that spark and stoked it to a full-on raging flame.
In the last two-quarters of play, Liberty looked like a better team than they have all season, not just in their execution, but in the energy they brought to each drive. Willis especially was just incredible with backward passes to avoid safeties, basketball style throws from the chest for first downs, and evading and powering through defenders for first downs despite his obvious discomfort as he limped back to the huddle. Willis has had a lot of amazing performances, and statistically, this won’t be one of his best, but the grit and determination he showed Saturday definitely causes this game to rank as one the best games of his career.
Liberty should leave this game with several positives to think about and build one for their offense. First off, Bennett is showing to be a very capable backup, although definitely in need of some more first-team reps to get on page with his receivers. Second, Willis seems to have excited his slump and barring any lingering injury symptoms should be back as a reliable weapon for this offense. Thirdly, Liberty’s receivers (especially CJ Daniels who had 135 yards, 2 scores, and some highlight real catches) really stepped up and showed that Liberty isn’t just reliant on one star-wideout with 9 different players catching passes and 3 different players scoring. Lastly, Hugh Freeze can still come up with creative play calls. This whole season it seems, but especially the last few games, Liberty has looked far too predictable overall on offense, and Freeze’s obvious frustration with his O-line has appeared to bleed into his play calling as he has doggedly tried to lean on the RB run game to the overall detriment of the offense. He has also appeared to put too much trust in Willis’ abilities to avoid the defense and hoped that his scrambling ability will make up for poor blocking by the line vs calling plays to react to the defense’s success in getting to the QB.
However, Hugh Freeze looked on point in the second half of this game with numerous short passing calls and innovative screenplays to take advantage of an overly aggressive defense. Maybe Hugh Freeze has been attempting to save his playbook for the November gauntlet, but he obviously made a decision in this one to pull out all the stops and it resulted in a Liberty win. Hopefully, this is emblematic of Liberty’s star coach getting back into a grove and coming out of his season-long slump that has seen an LU team that went 10-1 with two P5 wins and a bowl win over top 20 Coastal Carolina, fall to 4-2 prior to this week’s matchup.
In the first 37 minutes and 33 seconds of this one, Liberty’s defense allowed North Texas to score on 5 of 9 possessions for a total of 26 points. However, in the second part of the third and the entirety of the fourth, LU’s defense held North Texas scoreless and forced 2 punts, a turnover on downs, and a missed field goal. Liberty definitely fed off the momentum created by their offense in this one and while it wasn’t a dominant performance in the second half with almost 200 yards of total offense allowed it was certainly decisive with Liberty operating a bend but don’t break style of play that saw Liberty give up multiple big plays but tighten up in the red zone.
However, one major weak spot for this Flames defense throughout the game was it’s secondary. The defensive line had some struggles in the first half with 183 yards and two TDs allowed but turned things around in the second half with just 59 yards and zero scores allowed in the second. But throughout almost the entire game the passing attack was a key weapon against this Flames defense. Time after time, the defense would shut down the run, only to see North Texas pass over the top for a big gain. All told North Texas passed for 8 first downs and scored on a passing touchdown to a wide-open receiver. It could have been much worse if not for two huge passing plays taken off the board due to offensive holding and another that was dropped late in the game. Liberty has struggled all year against the passing attack and hasn’t even faced the two most dangerous passing teams on its schedule. Liberty gets a bit of a bye in the passing game next week with UMass who averages just 183 yards per game in the air, but something has to change in the scheme or personnel soon or it won’t matter that Liberty seems to have righted itself offensively.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Honestly, the special teams overall don’t deserve this high of a grade but Demario Douglas’ 72-yard punt return for a score to give Liberty the lead and take any momentum North Texas may have had left completely away deserves nothing less than an A++. It was a truly amazing run that seemed to feed off the energy brought by Willis’ return to the game which gave this squad back the hope that they could win the game. Adding to the A grade was a fantastic 53-yard return by Shedro Louis which while it didn’t result in a score on the ensuing drive was still an impressive effort by Louis
The rest of the performance was less than exemplary with a 20-yard punt return allowed by the coverage unit, a 10-yard kick return by Duron Lowe, and two very poor punts by Morgan, one for 35 yards from his own end zone and a shank that resulted in just 1 yard. In fact, the shank was so bad that it resulted in another Flames player returning from injury, Aiden Alves who had an impressive return to action with two punts landing within the 25-yard line. It will be interesting to see what happens in practice this week as Morgan has been a very reliable punter for the Flames overall but certainly was overshadowed by the original starter, Alves, Saturday.
HOW DID LIBERTY PERFORM AGAINST MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. CHANGE IT UP IN THE REDZONE: N/A
Liberty smartly corrected their red zone issues by making sure they scored from outside of it on every successful drive. All joking aside though, all of Liberty’s scores came from outside the red zone with the closest being an exactly 20-yard throw to CJ Daniels from Willis. It remains to be seen if Hugh Freeze has drawn up any new schemes for addressing this trouble area but with the new creativity infused into the playbook in the second half of this game, there certainly is the hope that LU can fix this major blind spot going forward.
2. USE BACKS SITUATIONALLY: B-
Liberty only handed the ball off 13 times in this one so it was hard to tell exactly how Liberty was utilizing their backs, but Louis certainly seemed to be the main third-down back and was used effectively in the passing game with a 37-yard touchdown pass. LU’s largest back TJ Green was used as the main power back when Liberty just needed to grind out the clock on the last drive so there are certainly signs that Liberty might be playing to the skill sets of their backs a little more vs attempting to simply jam them in interchangeably.
3. KICK THE FOOTBALL: F
Liberty was only down 6 and was set to get the ball back at the end of the half. There were 14 seconds on the clock and it would have been a 45-yard field goal attempt. Liberty was lined up to kick the ball when North Texas called a time-out. After the time out, instead of going for the field goal, Hugh Freeze trotted out his backup QB who had just missed 3 passes to wide-open receivers to try for a Hail Mary-style pass to the end zone that dropped harmlessly to the turf.
It was a 45-yard field goal. Instead of allowing his team to go in with momentum and points off of an interception following Bennett’s first passing TD of the game, Hugh Freeze opted for the much lower return wild throw to the end zone which deflated his team, gave North Texas a boost for not allowing points off the turnover and once again showed Freeze’s complete lack of faith in the kicking game.
At this point Freeze’s animosity to the kicking game is amounting to what seems like a personal grudge and is determined not to give the unit any opportunity to prove his hatred wrong even in the most obvious kicking situations. If it’s Willis out there, maybe you go for the end zone, but Beck has already made a clean 37-yard kick previously and your team didn’t need a TD. For once see if your field goal unit can get you the points and get to the half only down 3. Definitely the most frustrating element of Hugh Freeze’s coaching this season.
Most of you have probably gotten through reading this and think, wow, this was pretty upbeat for LU struggling to beat a team that was 1-5 and that LU was favored over by 20+ points. While it is true that the game should never have been as close as it was, I said that Liberty would likely still be reeling from last week’s loss and it really took them a half to work through things and get back on track in this one. However, in the second half, LU outscored North Texas 21-6 and more importantly looked good doing it (besides from the holes in the pass coverage). The first half of this game should be lumped in with last week’s game and fans should look at this week’s performance as only representing that second half where LU finally looked like LU and seems to be back on track.
More importantly, however, is the fact that this team faced adversity and for the first time managed to overcome that adversity for a win. That is huge for LU. Great teams are born from adversity and in fighting back in this game Liberty proved they could win under the toughest circumstances when nothing is going their way and that they should never count themselves out. Liberty proved that they could trust each other and that even with Willis less than 100% he can still carry this team to victory.
Liberty got its mojo back in this win and with Liberty one game away from the toughest 3 game stretch in school history it couldn’t come at a better time. If Liberty learning how to overcome defeat and win despite the circumstances in this one means Liberty gets some wins against the marque matchups in November, I think it will be well worth the tradeoff of a little struggling midseason by a team that still has the capability to be something very special.
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point
*All photos courtesy of Liberty Athletics