GAME SUMMARY: LIBERTY 21 VS TROY 13
This one had the makings of a shootout early with scores in 3 of the first 4 possessions of the game but the defenses turned things around to prevent scores on the next 10 ensuing drives. It wouldn’t be until the fourth quarter that the scoreboard operator would need to make any adjustments when things would once again get interesting with two touchdowns (one by each team) and two blocked kicks (also one by each team). The scores would serve as bookends on what was otherwise a defensive slug-fest.
Liberty has mostly lived or died on their offense under Hugh Freeze. The last time Liberty won a game while scoring 21 points or less was October 6th, 2019 against New Mexico State. So while a win is a win, Liberty is lucky to be walking away with a W after the offense came up empty on 5/8 drives (not counting the final kneel down possession). The biggest hindrance to Liberty in this game was definitely their offensive line which struggled to get consistent push in the run game and could not buy anytime for Willis, who was sacked 5 times. In fact, while Liberty recorded 185 yards rushing, only 92 of those yards came from players not wearing number 7. Now, part of this was due to the fact that Liberty was without starting right tackle Cooper McCaw in this week’s matchup, but this is the second week that Liberty has struggled to dominate at the point of attack as I noted in my review of the win over Campbell last week.
What coaches hate most of all is trends, and the O-line deficiencies are certainly becoming a trend. Liberty’s next opponent (Old Dominion) gave up 164 yards rushing in their week one matchup against Wake Forrest and another 100+ yards against FCS team Hampton, so there may be an opportunity here for Liberty to try out some new schemes and attempt to get back on track but great teams are built behind dominant offensive lines and it doesn’t matter how great Liberty’s backs are, or how powerful Willis’ arm is if the line doesn’t block upfront. Let’s hope the coaches are able to halt this “trend” before Liberty progresses too much further into the season.
“So if the offense struggled as much as you say, why are they getting a B+ and not a C or worse?” Well, the reason is that when Liberty needed to, they were able to get points on the board. Liberty scored easily on their first and second drives before settling down for a mid-game hibernation break. Liberty had plenty of opportunities with short fields or drives that sputtered out, but when late in the third and a score desperately needed to put away a Troy team that was getting restless, Liberty managed to string together a 90-yard scoring drive (42 of which came from Willis’ legs) to go up two scores in the fourth. I talked about how last week the offensive struggles could be attributed to LU playing with a partial playbook and this week showed the impact of that decision.
Saturday was really the Liberty offense’s first game and it showed. Several times Malik and his receivers looked out of sync with at least two likely touchdowns missed long or out of bounds by Willis. It also appeared that there were some definite issues in the downfield blocking as Joshua Mack looked visibly upset after coming off the field on Liberty’s second to last drive. The fact that the coaches really didn’t try to force Willis’ legs until the final two drives of the game showed that Liberty’s coaches were playing the long game and trying to work out some kinks so that Liberty can be competitive down the road. You can’t be one-dimensional, especially if that one dimension is your QB, and Hugh Freeze knows that. If Liberty had wanted to, they could probably have let Malik do his thing and put up 35 or more points on Troy, but the offense would be right back in the same bind next week and the week after that.
Hugh Freeze wants this team to be a nationally ranked team, going into the end of the season competing for something special and he knows they are capable of it. I applaud Hugh Freeze for showing the patience to let this offense get on track while also showing the wisdom to unleash his miracle maker when it’s really necessary. I do not think this offensive performance was symptomatic of the Liberty offense going forward (although that line needs some serious work) and I expect Liberty to show a very different side next week against the Old Dominion Monarchs.
Liberty allowed only 21 rushing yards this week (the least amount of yards given up in LU’s 4 year FBS history), held Troy to only 211 passing yards, forced an interception, held Troy scoreless on 7 straight drives after giving up a TD on the first possessions, and forced Troy to go for it 4 times from the one which burnt 2 minutes, 41 seconds off the clock on their final touchdown drive, which subsequently forced Troy to go for the onside kick vs having the option of trying to kick deep and hold LU to a 3 and out.
Was it a perfect performance? No. Liberty allowed Troy to convert on 2/2 fourth down attempts, got ran all over on the first drive, and looked vulnerable at times in the secondary. However, after a disappointing first outing, Liberty’s coaches made some fantastic adjustments (I was sitting right behind the defensive bench) and showed results immediately with a forced punt on the ensuing possession. Liberty finished the day with 5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and two pass breakups.
Liberty’s D, especially the D-line, showed much more strength and determination than they did last week and the defensive scheme looked far more innovative and aggressive. I came down hard on Liberty last week because I assumed they were playing with a full playbook on defense, but I forgot to account for the fact that Liberty may have wanted to hide some schemes on the defensive side as well and the play-calling I saw this week (combined with better execution at all levels of the D) certainly seemed to indicate that Liberty may not have been playing with a full deck last week. This defense should prove an outstanding complement to Liberty’s offense if the coaches can keep up this intensity and Liberty can get its offense back in gear.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Before I talk about the special team’s performance overall, I want to talk about Aidan Alves’ performance and the incredible job he did against Troy. Called on to kick 4 times when LU’s drives stalled out he performed exceptionally, pinning Troy back deep and preventing the Trojans from gaining any advantage. Alves averaged 42 yards per punt, had a long of 50, and had 3 punts land inside the 15 with one rolling up at the 3! The special teams’ performance is a cumulative grade, but he definitely deserves an A+.
Now for the rest of the unit…. Liberty didn’t manage to return a single punt (despite fielding 4 of them), only returned one kick for 20 yards, and allowed Barbir’s lone kick attempt to be blocked (and it wasn’t Barbir’s fault). This is the second week that Liberty’s special teams have struggled after earning a D rating last week, and while improvements in the punting game are promising, Liberty is going to need significant improvement out of this unit or they may see themselves walking out with a letter other than W not too far down the road.
HOW DID LIBERTY FULFIL MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. UNCORK THE OFFENSE: C+
The effort was certainly there as Liberty really seemed to be trying to get things going in this one, but a combination of poor line play, mixed with some out of sorts performances across the board meant that Liberty only managed 154 yards passing, 185 yards rushing (93 by Willis) and only 3 scores. I’m looking for Liberty to make a big step forward in week 3.
2. TIGHTEN UP THE SECONDARY: B-
Liberty’s secondary definitely played better in this one and it helped that Liberty’s line applied a lot more pressure this week than last, but there were definitely some obvious breaks in the coverage that resulted in big plays for Troy (5 passing plays of over 20 yards and a wide-open TD pass on fourth and goal). Overall Liberty stepped forward this week and I look for them to take another step up next week as they look to get back to the lockdown defensive form that they showed they were capable (at times) late in the season last year.
3. MAKE SPECIAL TEAMS GREAT AGAIN: F
I said last week that Liberty needed a dominant win this week if they wanted to catch the nation’s attention and have a chance of starting to make a bid for the Top 25. Coaches and sometimes fans like to act like the polls (especially the early season polls) aren’t important, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Start out in the Top 25, or get in within the first 6 weeks, and you could be getting people talking about New Year 6 or better towards the end of the season, even with a below average schedule (look at BYU and Coastal last year). Struggle to win games at the beginning of the season and stay outside of the rankings but pull it out big in the last 6 weeks and you still probably are looking at a bowl against a below-average Power 5 opponent at best. Liberty is currently sitting just three spots outside of the AP rankings right now, but they’re likely to stay there if they cant string together some dominant wins. Next week’s matchup gives Liberty the chance to do just that, but Hugh Freeze is going to have to pull out all the stops in practice this week to get them to the level necessary to go out and get that statement win the Flames desperately need.
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point.