The Liberty Flames (4-0) hit the road for the first time in a month as the Flames take on the Syracuse Orange (1-3). Kickoff is scheduled for noon inside the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York and will be televised on ACC Regional Networks.
Syracuse is the only opponent on Liberty’s 2020 schedule which the Flames also played in 2019. The Orange won that matchup, the only previous between the two teams, 24-0.
This season, the Orange opened the year with losses on the road to #18 North Carolina (31-6) and #25 Pittsburgh (21-10). Saturday’s game against Liberty will be Syracuse’s third straight at home. They defeated Georgia Tech, 37-20, on Sept. 26 and lost to Duke, 38-24, last week.
The Orange are in their 5th season under head coach Dino Babers, who sports a 24-29 record with Syracuse while leading the Orange to the 2018 Camping World Bowl.
“Everything we do is about, in year two, trying to advance our program,” said Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze. “What better opportunity do you have than being able to go play an ACC team on the road and hopefully be in the game and have a chance to compete to win it?”
Saturday will be Syracuse’s first game without quarterback Tommy DeVito after he suffered a lower left leg injury last week against Duke. There hasn’t been any official word from Syracuse, but multiple reports have DeVito missing the entire season.
In his place, redshirt-senior Rex Culpepper is expected to make the start on Saturday. Culpepper has seen a decent amount of on field playing time throughout his career, including in all four games this season where he has completed 8 of 19 passes for 113 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception.
“I think he knows how to run their system,” Liberty defensive coordinator Scott Symons said of Culpepper. “He can run the ball, as well as run their offense. They’ve played him a lot this year. I don’t think that the offensive system will change that much with him, and I think he’s a guy that can run the offense at a high-tempo pace just like they like to do.”
Freshman running back Sean Tucker leads the way for the Orange on the ground. In three games this season, he has rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns on 40 attempts.
At receiver, Syracuse looks to Taj Harris and Nykeim Johnson. Harris leads the way with 17 receptions for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns. Johnson has 10 receptions for 118 yards and 1 touchdown. Anthony Queeley is the only other receiver with more than 5 receptions on the season, as he has 10 catches for 85 yards.
“From a personnel standpoint, this will be by far the best team we have played to this point,” Symons stated. “They are really explosive at wideout, can score from anywhere on the field.”
Of Taj Harris, Symons said, “You’ve got to know where he is on the field at all times. He’s an explosive player, whether he’s in the slot, whether he’s on the outside. They do a great job moving him around. He’s a guy that everybody has to know where he is because he can score from anywhere on the field. He’s a big time player.”
Like on offense, the Orange are missing the team leader on defense as well. All-American defensive back Andre Cisco injured his ACL earlier this season against Pitt. This week, it was officially announced that he would miss the rest of the 2020 season, and Cisco has since announced that he is declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft.
On defense, the first thing that jumps out to Hugh Freeze is the Syracuse defensive line. Led by the three seniors Josh Black, McKinley Williams, and Kingsley Jonathan, the Orange defensive front are able to create pressure against opposing quarterbacks.
“The first thing that jumps at you when you put the Syracuse film on is that D-Line,” said Freeze. “They jump off the page now. We’ve got to work hard to try to handle them, all their movements and twists can give you problems.”
If the Syracuse defense has a weakness it is stopping the run. They’ve allowed 231.3 yards rushing per game, and the Flames will attempt to challenge that run defense as Liberty currently ranks 7th nationally with 250.8 rushing yards per game.
In addition to being an explosive receiver, Nykeim Johnson is also a dynamic returner. He handles both kickoffs and punt returns for the Orange.
“This guy is dynamic,” said Liberty special teams coordinator Tanner Burns. “He can make you miss in a phone booth. He’s as special as special gets. We’ve got to do a good job and keep the ball from him, whether that be kicking it opposite of him on kickoff return, or whatever the case may be. We’ve got to eliminate him from the game because he is as dangerous as there is in college football right now.”
- Liberty is looking for its first ever victory against an ACC opponent and first ever win in New York. The Flames are 0-8 in both circumstances.
- Syracuse is the only repeat opponent on Liberty’s 2020 schedule from the 2019 season. Since that game, the Orange are 5-10 while the Flames are 12-4.
- Liberty and Duke, Syracuse’s opponent last week, are the only two FBS teams that feature two players who have 340+ rushing yards this season as Liberty’s Joshua Mack and Malik Willis have each reached that plateau. The Blue Devils’ Deon Jackson and Mateo Durant rushed for 332 yards last week against the Orange.
- The Flames are looking to move to 5-0 for the first time since 2008 and the 3rd 5-0 start in program history.
QB Malik Willis on the opportunity this game presents – “That’s rat poison. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just know we’ve got to go out there and play the best game we can. Go out there and execute, play 60 minutes real hard and see what comes after that.”
RB Peytton Pickett – “We’re a different team than last year, but they beat us. You don’t want to lose to somebody twice especially when you get another opportunity. We’ve just got to capitalize on this chance.”
WR/PR Demario Douglas – “This game means a lot. They beat us 24-0 at our home, so its very different.”
DE Durrell Johnson – “We’re definitely eager to pin our ears back.”
Hugh Freeze – “There are people that are expecting us to compete. That’s an expectation we embrace and we’re excited about.”
Liberty 24, Syracuse 23
This game should be decided in the 4th quarter and maybe by whoever has the ball last. Any key plays such as a defensive or special teams score could be the difference.