Game Summary: LU 45 vs ODU 17
Liberty had to wait 3 games, but they finally looked like a complete team. The offense came alive for 45 points, the defense held ODU to 201 total yards, and the special teams didn’t -miss any kicks (for the first game this season). Liberty is now 3-0 for the first time in back-to-back seasons since 1989-90 (yes, I stole that stat from the broadcast). There are certainly things to work on going into next week’s matchup vs ACC team Syracuse, but Flame’s fans can take heart knowing that this team seems to finally have shifted into gear and is moving in the right direction
Liberty managed to score on 7/10 drives and Willis looked electric with 6 total TDs accounted for, 4 through the air and 2 on the ground. The offense, which looked shaky and at times stagnant against Troy, had the training wheels taken off Saturday as it exploded for over 400 total yards.
I had noted in my preview article that the first two games it looked like the coaches were limiting Willis (for a variety of reasons) which was hurting this offense, but Freeze unleashed his superstar QB in Saturday’s matchup and it showed with the offense looking much more in-sync and Willis’ scrambling quickly when plays broke down. Last week Liberty gave up 5 sacks, but this week dropped that number down to 3 (with two of those definitely avoidable if Willis hadn’t tried to do too much). But overall, the line played much better due to the added threat of Willis’ legs and the fact that the ball was coming out much faster this week (helped out by the secondary creeping up to the line of scrimmage to stop the QB run game).
Willis for his part looked much closer to his 2020 form as he made reads quickly (mostly), tucked the ball quickly, and ran when nobody was open, and overall just looked much sharper and in rhythm than he has at any point in the season so far. There were certainly some learning moments for Willis (like don’t dance around and take a 14-yard sack when you had plenty of time to throw the ball away) and he missed at least two deep throws which might have been TDs (although by the same token he had a sure TD pass dropped), but overall Willis looked good and Flames’ fans should be excited that this is likely just the tip of the iceberg of Willis’ potential this season.
One significant downside that snuck under the radar in Liberty’s 400+ offensive performance is that Liberty still doesn’t seem to have a reliable ground game. Liberty did not have a single one of its trio of backs go for over 50 yards and if Willis’ 77 rushing yards and two scores are taken out, the ground game becomes responsible for only 105 yards rushing and no TDs. Liberty’s offense may be picking up steam in the passing game, but the run game is still lagging behind. As Hugh Freeze’s offense is a run-heavy approach and not an air-raid scheme, this is really a glaring issue that may cause problems for the Flames down the road.
A defense that manages 5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, an interception and holds the opponent to under 70 yards rushing is always going to score high in my appraisal chart. Liberty continued its strong performance from last week and proved that the game against Troy was no fluke as they are certainly showing that they have turned a corner.
Especially dominant was Liberty’s defensive line which accounted for 17 tackles, 4 out of 5 sacks, and 6.5 out of 9 tackles for loss! Player of the game for the defense in my book certainly goes to DT Kendy Charles who had 3 sacks and 3 tackles for loss, although fellow D-lineman Ralfs Rusins’ 5 tackles (third on the team), 2 tackles for loss, and 1 sack are also impressive!
However, while the defensive line looked dominant, the secondary continued to look vulnerable, giving up a passing fourth-down conversion for a second week in a row and often struggling to tackle (as the TD catch and run immediately following the fourth down conversion would show). Liberty’s passing D’s night could have been a whole lot worse if it wasn’t for a large number of drops by the ODU receivers, who were often wide open but unable to hold on to the pass. Liberty faces a Syracuse team that has some confidence after its first 2-1 start since 2018, and while not a dominant passing attack, will certainly prove more of a challenge than ODU.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
On paper it doesn’t look too bad, Liberty was 1/1 on field goal attempts, 6/6 for PATs, and averaged 44.3 yards per punt with a long of 52. However, for those who watched the game, you know this was another rough outing for the Liberty special team unit. To begin with, Liberty’s main punt returner (Demario Douglas) dropped a return which was recovered by ODU and set the Monarchs up in field goal range. Douglas also almost lost another punt when he made the bad decision to field a punt with 3+ ODU defenders in his face and was lucky to hold onto the ball after taking a big hit. As for Liberty’s punting game, Alves may have averaged 44.3 yards per punt, but he got lucky in having one very short kick (which rolled backward about 10 yards) whipped out due to the fact that ODU got called for roughing the kicker. Liberty wasn’t going to let a favor go unreturned and gifted ODU a roughing the kicker penalty a few drives later.
That was the big stuff, and while there were some redemptive factors such as couple of nice kick-returns by Shedro Louis, Liberty also had a rash of minor issues that could have been much worse or prove impactful in a closer matchups. Luckily, Liberty’s offense and defense were dominant in this one and the special teams performance was a secondary factor, but there will come matchups down the road (sooner than later) where the performance of Liberty’s third unit could prove the difference in a win or a loss.
HOW DID LIBERTY PERFORM AGAINST MY KEYS TO THE GAME
1. DON’T OVERLOOK: A+
Honestly, Liberty looked more prepared in this matchup than they have all season. Syracuse is a much bigger game next week, but Liberty spent the time to focus this week and it paid off big.
2. ESTABLISH THE RUNNING GAME: C+
It wasn’t that Liberty wasn’t trying. 41 out of Liberty’s 62 plays from scrimmage were running plays. Liberty may just have to face the fact that the run game isn’t a weapon they can rely on this season and adjust accordingly. However, shifting to a more pass-heavy (dare I say air-raid) style attack is a bitter pill that run-oriented Hugh Freeze is not likely to take easily.
3. ALLOW WILLIS TO BREAK LOOSE: A+
Check, check, check! It was good to see Willis back out there returning to his old form, even if I still closed my eyes and winced every time he took off and got hit.
Liberty played well in this one, and with 5 of the 13-25 ranked teams going down, the odds are excellent that Liberty will make it into the AP Top 25 this week ahead of their first P5 matchup of the season. Syracuse could present a trap game as a team that Liberty has beaten before and certainly look stronger than (Flames are currently favored by ESPN), but who has started this season better than either of the last two years and is still stinging from what their own sports writer termed “an embarrassing defeat” and will be looking for a revenge win at home. Liberty’s offense should be more than ready for the challenge and Liberty’s D-line will help make up for deficiencies in the secondary but the blind spot on this team, the special teams, could present issues if this game stays close. Freeze was able to turn around his defense after week one, his offense after week 2 and hopefully the practice this week yields the solutions needed for the special team’s unit to start being an active and reliable member of this Flames team.
TOP 25 PREDICTION: Liberty cracks the polls at #24
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point