GAME SUMMARY: LIBERTY 56 VS SO MISS 35
Liberty became the second team in the nation to reach 6-0 this week in a dominant win over a Southern Miss team who was missing their interim head coach and starting QB. Liberty might still have skeptics out there saying they don’t deserve to be in the top 25 but the Flames have done something that nobody expected this year and that’s put themselves in the conversation.
Malik Willis defies description, he ascends analysis, and he counters classification. There are truly no words adequate to describe his performance as each week he continues to dominate and impress. While a questionable call by the referees overturned a touchdown which would have given Willis the Liberty record for most touchdown passes in a game (the record is 6 which he tied) he did manage to secure the all-time Liberty single-game scoring record by rushing for a touchdown in the game which gave him 7 total TDs. In total, Willis was 24/31 for 345 yards passing and 6 TDs with no picks and added 97 yards and a touchdown (with one fumble) on the ground.
Assisting Willis to his record-breaking performance was a Liberty receiving game which saw 9 different players catch passes and 5 different players score. Leading the receiving performance was Demario Douglas who had a breakout game and a career-high 115 yards on 6 receptions and a TD.
The rushing game was quieter today after a leading role last week, but the Flames still managed to amass 192 yards on the ground and Shedro Louis added to his outstanding performance last week by leading the Liberty backs with 64 yards on the ground (he should have had 109 yards and a touchdown but another questionable decision by the refs called him out of bounds at midfield after getting all the way to the end zone). Joshua Mack returned to the game this week after seeing no action last week (he is dealing with an elbow infection), but struggled to get his footing with only 9 carries for 17 yards on the ground (although he did score a short touchdown after the refs overturned what would have been Willis’ record-breaking touchdown pass).
Liberty’s defense dominated the first half. After allowing Southern Miss to get on the board first, the Liberty D tightened up and kept the Golden Eagles scoreless all the way to the locker room. That would change in the second half as a fumble recovery and a successful onside kick (of sorts) led to Southern Miss scoring a flurry of points in the third quarter to bring the score within a touchdown. However, Liberty once again adjusted well going into the fourth and only allowed one additional touchdown in garbage time. Overall, Liberty’s D played very well and stopped 3 fourth-down conversions while holding the Golden Eagles overall to 43% on third-down conversions.
Highlighting what truly was a great day for the most part for the Flames defense were performances by Anthony Butler who had a season-high 11 tackles, Javon Scruggs and Ralfs Rusins who each notched their 100th career tackles and Jimmy Faulks who snagged his first interception of the season and the lone forced turnover of the game for the Flames.
Liberty went for it on fourth down twice while leading and one of those attempts was well within kicking range at the Southern Miss 16. Liberty made both of its fourth-down attempts but it has to be asked if the decision to go for it was based on confidence that they would make the first or lack of confidence in the kicking game (or maybe a combination of both). Either way, the only kick that Alex Barbir attempted was from 47 yards out (would have been a season-long) and he ended up hooking it left. Barbir can’t really be blamed for missing a kick that was likely out of his range but the decision to go for it from short range does raise some questions about the confidence that the coaches have in the kicking game.
While the kicking game might have been a non-factor in this one, the punting game was huge as Flames punter Aidan Alves had his best performance of the season, with both of his punts checking up inside the Southern Miss 10! Outside of the incredible performance in the punt game, the rest of the special teams was fine with no long returns allowed but also no return greater than 10 yards made by Liberty with the only real error being the onside kick which Southern Miss managed to recover.
HOW DID LIBERTY FULFILL MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. DON’T OVERLOOK! A
Liberty came out ready to dominate in this one and although they may have allowed Southern Miss to claw their way back for a bit in the second half, that looked more like just tremendous effort and coaching on the part of the Golden Eagles vs complacency by Liberty. The Flames walk away from this one with a nice win, but you can be sure there will be no time to rest as LU gets ready to match up against Virginia Tech in two weeks.
2. WILLIS NEEDS TO LEARN TO SLIDE C+
On the second touchdown drive for the Flames, Willis made a 16 yard run to the Southern Miss 12, which looked identical to his run last week where he fumbled the ball, except this time Willis angled for the sideline and got out of bounds before he could be hit. This was a much smarter play and allowed Liberty to set up for a touchdown a play later. However, there were still a lot of moments where Willis stayed upright far too long, including 2 where he was wrapped up at the line of scrimmage with one leg pinned and he was still pushing for an extra yard as he got swarmed under, and a run in the fourth quarter with Liberty up by 3 TDs where he threw a stiff arm as he went out of bounds instead of just sliding or stepping out. In two weeks, these kinds of plays could have dire consequences as Willis faces the big, NFL bound, linemen and linebackers of Virginia Tech. Liberty will need all the Willis magic there is if they want a shot to win that game but they also need Willis to know when to protect himself and get down.
3. GET BENNETT MEANINGFUL PLAYING TIME: F
This one isn’t Liberty’s fault. Obviously, the comeback attempt by SO Miss forced Liberty to keep its starters in the game until practically the last drive. The one time Willis did have to come out because of losing his helmet, the Flames put Chris Ferguson in the game, which with the limited playing time that Bennett has received was probably the right call for the situation. It will be interesting to see which way the Flames go with the backup QB position after two weeks of practice going into the VT game.
Liberty is sitting at 6-0 with a huge matchup on the horizon but still has so many questions unanswered. How good is this Liberty team? Are they undefeated because of the coaching and talent or is it just the weakness of the schedule? I think it is worth noting that Syracuse scored the exact same amount of points (21) against Clemson that they did again the Flames and the Tigers only managed to score 9 more points than Liberty did against the Cuse. Now, teams have good weeks and bad weeks and just because the Syracuse vs Clemson score was similar to the Syracuse vs Liberty score does in no way mean that Liberty and Clemson are anywhere near the same level, but it is an interesting point when evaluating this perplexing 6-0 team. I guess we will all find out in 2 weeks. You can be sure that Hugh Freeze, a coach who has beaten Nick Saban twice, will have one heck of a game plan drawn up against VT who is coming off a tough loss to Wake Forest.
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point