The Liberty Flames dominated in all phases of the game on an overcast and rainy Saturday afternoon at Williams Stadium. With a 40-7 win over Louisiana-Monroe, Liberty moves to 4-0 on the season for the first time since 2008.
The Flames’ defense set the tone early, forcing three and outs on ULM’s first five drives. Special teams would add to the domination early thanks to a 38 yard Demario Douglas punt return, setting up Liberty’s first scoring drive of the afternoon on a Peytton Pickett 15 yard touchdown scamper.
“People think of me as an offensive guy, which that is what I was brought up doing, but I will take a defensive effort like this any day of the week and twice on Sundays, if I can,” said Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze. “It was a very complete game. I thought the effort was there, the attention to detail all week. I told them last night at the hotel that I’ve seen it, I believe they are going to experience great success today because of the way they went about preparing for the week.”
For the second consecutive week, Liberty lost a shutout in the 4th quarter as Louisiana-Monroe got on the scoreboard with 3:34 left in the game. The Flames had primarily its 3rd string defense in for the drive. ULM’s 7 points scored were the fewest allowed by Liberty against an FBS opponent.
The Warhawks’ Colby Suits came into the game 5th in the country in passing yards, but Liberty’s defense shut him down all afternoon. The pressure the defensive line was able to create on the opening drives, got into his head as he finished the game with just 78 passing yards and 2 interceptions while completing 13 of his 29 passes.
The special teams had a banner day, highlighted by the play of Treon Sibley. The Liberty wide receiver fell on a muffed snap on a punt in the ULM end zone for a touchdown. Later, in the third quarter, Sibley would break into the backfield to block a punt in the end zone that Chancellor Smith would recover for a touchdown.
In the 4th quarter, Demario Douglas returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown as the special teams recorded its 3rd touchdown of the afternoon.
“Special teams did some really good stuff to get some points on the board for us,” said Freeze. “I don’t have a whole lot to complain about in respect to our defense and our special teams today. I thought they were really, really good. I’m glad to sit here today and say I won’t go home tonight and worry too much about our special teams effort today.”
Malik Willis returned to action following a one week absence last week after injuring his left elbow late in the 4th quarter against Florida International. His play was a little inconsistent as he struggled to connect with receivers downfield. Wearing a protective brace on his left arm, he looked comfortable running around and escaping the pocket. Willis would finish the day 11 of 29 passing for 177 yards and 1 interception. He would also lead the team in rushing with 87 yards and 1 touchdown on 13 rushing attempts.
“We’re thrilled to be 4-0,” said Freeze. “So, we’re certainly not going to sit here and complain too much, but Malik, to me, played like he had been out a lot. He was rusty and not crisp. Even the throws that he made that were the right reads were a little off, a little behind people, a little high. He did a lot of good things, obviously. Ran around, got some first downs, made some good throws, but we were just very inconsistent. I’ve got to find a way to get us more consistent.”
The Flames still managed to put up 400 total yards of offense, but were held to a season low 180 rushing yards. Liberty had rushed for at least 200 yards in each of the season’s first three games. Joshua Mack had eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all three games, as well, but he was held to just 22 yards on 7 carries.
“They forced you to throw the football,” Freeze said of the ULM defense. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really played a team that decided early on they were going to commit to stopping the run. They did a good job. They were very physical up front. I thought their safeties tackled well in the box. We were going to have throw some and we weren’t consistent at it.”
The win sets up a big showdown for the Flames next week in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse in a rematch from last season’s 24-0 Orange win.