GAME SUMMARY: LIBERTY 38 VS VIRGINIA TECH 35
Nobody saw it coming. Not a single sports analyst or betting odds website predicted this and even yours truly (who has guessed right on every previous matchup) was predicting a loss on Saturday, but the Flames proved us all incredibly wrong! On a stage that never seemed too big for LU, Liberty showed the entire country that they aren’t undefeated just because of a soft schedule but are undefeated because they are a really good football team! Lookout because the Flames right now are burning up every team in their path!
Really, Liberty should probably have won this game by at least 17 points. Liberty had no issues at all moving the ball against the bigger, faster defense of Virginia Tech and the only thing standing in Liberty’s way on most of their drives was themselves. Two costly fumbles in the first half by Malik Willis (one inside the 20) led to 10 VT points and a 14-20 deficit going into halftime. However, other then those two miscues, Liberty churned through the Hokie D like butter with multiple receivers getting open deep behind the secondary and massive holes created in the running game for LU to rush for over 200 yards. The most impressive part was that Liberty didn’t rely on gadget plays and got all of its yards by simply running their normal offense.
The success of the offense was due primarily to Malik Willis. Willis was 20/30 for 217 yards 3 TDs and no INTs while also putting up 108 yards and a rushing TD on the ground to add yet again to his breakout year for LU. The key to Willis’s success today was his ability to scramble (which has been Liberty’s biggest offensive weapon) and his awareness to keep his eyes downfield and throw on the run as he managed to make effortless throws across his body to receivers deep downfield with pinpoint accuracy.
It wasn’t a perfect day for Willis, however, as early in the game he seemed to be struggling with the snap and had two snaps dropped which he somehow managed to turn into positive yards. He also was responsible for the two Flames turnovers of the game as he had one ball stripped from him by the DE coming from the blindside and another knocked out of his hand after trying to do too much on a scramble in the red zone. Additionally, he had another fumble inside of the 5 in the first half, but the Flames managed to pounce on the loose ball and Willis threw his second TD of the game a play later. Willis made up for any of his first-half inconsistencies in the second half where he engineered three TD drives and the game-winning field goal drive. Willis may not have been perfect, but he was the key to Liberty’s offensive success as he miraculously scrambled out of blitzes for huge chunk plays and delivered the ball to over 9 different receivers against tight coverage by VT.
Willis was the star as usual in this matchup but the impressive stable of backs consisting of Mack, Pickett and Louis made themselves felt early and often. Mack had his first complete game Saturday for several weeks after his return last week from the injury list. Mack managed 90 yards on 19 carries to lead the LU backfield and looked smooth running and cutting against the VT defensive front. Pickett and Louis both continued to impress with 52 yards and a rushing TD between them as they spelled Mack and allowed Liberty to keep fresh runners in the game all day long.
Truly the most surprising and impressive group for the Flames was the defense! Liberty’s D forced 4 out of the 8 VT drives to end in field goal attempts or punts, including a stop at the Liberty 1 yard line which forced the Hokies to only be able to go up by 6 (vs 10) at the end of the first half. Liberty did give up some big plays in the run game (especially to VT’s athletic QB Hendon Hooker) but the Flames secondary (which has shown tremendous improvement this season) held VT to only 212 yards through the air. The Liberty defense would probably have added another drive to their total of stops but for one of the most egregious calls by a referee this year where the head Referee accidentally called LU LB number 6 Butler for defensive facemask when he meant to call VT’s RB Blackshear (also number 6) for offensive facemask, thus setting VT up at the Liberty 12 which they scored from a play later to tie the game with less than a minute left to play.
The Liberty defense didn’t really have one person or position group standout (besides maybe Anthony Butler who led the team in tackles) but instead played incredible team defense all day to make up for offensive errors with ball security and keep Liberty in striking distance until Willis and the rest of the Flames offense could settle down and stop shooting themselves in the foot. 35 points may look like a lot, but this was a VT team with the third-best offense in the ACC behind only North Carolina and Clemson and it could have been a lot more but for the incredible performance of the Liberty defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS : A+
By far the weakest unit overall for the Flames through their first 6 games, the Flames Special Teams unit came to play and had their best game of the season! It is of course due to the kicking game that Liberty walked out of Blacksburg with a win today. If you would have told me that Liberty would win the game on a 51-yard field goal, I would never have believed you, but somehow Alex Barbir (who has really struggled from outside of 30 yards with only 2 out of 6 kicks made) kicked a beautiful 51-yard field goal that barreled straight through the uprights and might have been good from 55+. It was an unbelievable performance for a kicker who has had a tough year after offering his services following the departure of Alex Probert and was only 7/11 on kicks this year with a long of 42. However, on the biggest stage, when it mattered most, with the entire fate of the game hung in the balance, Barbir came through and will go down in the annuls of Liberty athletics with the biggest kick in Flames’ football history.
It wasn’t just Barbir making an impact for the Flames. Aidan Alves kicked a beautiful end-over-end punt, which glanced off the VT return man and was recovered by Liberty at the Hokies 5 (culminating one play later with the fourth Liberty TD of the game). Ultimately it would be the kickoff coverage who would officially end the game and give Liberty the win as great eye discipline and positioning thwarted a last-ditch effort by VT to lateral the kickoff return around for a score as time expired.
HOW DID LIBERTY FULFILL MY KEYS TO THE GAME?
1. MIX IN SOME TRICK PLAYS (D-)
Liberty did attempt two trick plays in the first half which both ended up not working out. Liberty attempted to throw the ball back to Willis on a double pass, but he was well covered and it ended in a loss. Liberty also attempted an end-around on the second kick return of the game which ended in only a 19-yard return for Shedro Louis. However, Liberty didn’t need to fulfill this key! Liberty won this game based purely on the creativity and drive of the offense running their normal playbook. Most teams when they come in as outmatched underdogs rely on “trickeration” to win the game, but Liberty never looked like an underdog in this one and that is a true testament to the job that Hugh Freeze has done in building this program.
2. NO MISTAKES ON SPECIAL TEAMS (A+++)
Not only were there no mistakes on Special Teams but the unit was ultimately responsible for Liberty winning the game! Barbir was 1/1 kicking, Alves had 2 punts for an average of 44 yards and forced a muffed return, and the kickoff coverage allowed a long of 12 yards in the return game! A nearly flawless performance by the Special Teams unit today!
3.WILLIS, WILLIS, WILLIS (B+)
The mark of a great QB isn’t perfection, it is adaptability and being willing to fix mistakes. Willis may not have had a perfect performance in this one, especially in the first half, but coming out in the second half he made sure to tuck the ball into his body, get down or go out of bounds when he couldn’t make any more of it and led the team on 4 straight scoring drives to turn a first half Liberty deficit of 6 points into a 3 point victory for the Flames. Willis is probably one of the best QBs in the country, and after today’s win he is going to be having a lot of people looking in his direction to include some Heisman voters and NFL scouts.
The questions have been answered. Liberty is a legitimate team this year and 7-0 because of their talent on both sides of the ball. With the win over VT, Liberty has a very good shot of running the table this season. Matchups against NC State and #15 Coastal Carolina will present a challenge for the Flames but after beating Virginia Tech the Flames look like they might have the roster and head coach to do it. I said in my preview article that I didn’t think Liberty was quite ready to hang with the VTs of the world and I was completely wrong. Liberty looked right at home playing against the Hokies like they could compete at that level every week and find success. I picked against the Flames for the first time this week and I won’t be doing that again as long as Malik Willis is at the helm.
When the voters finally put Liberty into the rankings last week it was begrudgingly. Liberty was 6-0 but had played one of the weakest schedules in the country, very few actually believed the Flames deserved to be ranked in the Top 25. However, now that Liberty has beaten VT, the 7-0 record has to be examined in light of that win. I expect Liberty to make a big leap in the rankings this week to number 18, just a few spots back from 7-0 Coastal Carolina which sets up a huge end of season showdown in December! However, right now Liberty should just enjoy being 7-0 for the first time in the school’s young FBS history!
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point
All photos are credited to Liberty Athletics