Never in Liberty Football history has a team with so much talent and potential been so baffling, and so difficult to watch. Coming into the season with a strong schedule, the Flames had two realistic routes to the FCS playoffs. Yet in one horrendously tragic road game, they may have flushed both of them down the toilet. Saturday night’s 34-20 loss to Gardner-Webb (I can’t believe I actually just typed that) almost definitely puts a nail in the coffin of Liberty’s at-large bid hopes, and very well could have put the team’s Big South auto-bid chances out of reach.
Sporting a 3-2 out of conference record with wins over FCS power Montana and FBS Georgia State, Liberty should have been on easy street to the playoffs. All they had to do was get to November 19 without losing in conference, something that should have been a no brainer with a squad as talented as the Flames. However, Turner Gill’s team managed to do something almost no one thought was possible, losing by two touchdowns to one of the worst offensive ball clubs in the nation.
This wasn’t some unknown team from a FCS power conference. This was one of the worst teams in the Big South, a team that had not scored a point against Liberty in its last two meetings. There is no way to justify it. This was the worst loss of Turner Gill’s tenure in Lynchburg, and is on par with the Flames’ loss to Presbyterian back in 2008. That game kept Danny Rocco’s team out of the playoffs, and barring a 5 game winning streak to finish the season, this atrocity of a loss will do the same to Coach Gill.
There is just no excuse for what happened. It doesn’t matter if their Coach was at the Georgia Dome the week before scouting the Flames. Liberty’s Coaching staff and athletes have far too much of an advantage to not overcome that. This is the same team that handled Montana at home and put Georgia State away on the road. How can a team with such a high ceiling find a floor so low?
The warning signs have been there, but many of us have been blinded by the good performances of this squad. Liberty’s defense has been good against many opponents, but has struggled mightily against run heavy, mobile QB schemes going back to last season. In fact, the Flames’ last four FCS losses (Charleston Southern, Villanova, Southern Illinois, and Gardner-Webb) have all come at the hands of this type of attack.
The offense isn’t without blame either. Liberty’s run game has generally been abysmal this season. There have been moments of success, but the Flames’ inability to sustain a rushing attack has left Liberty with a one dimensional offense more often than not. It’s an old football axiom that bears repeating, that if you cannot run the football, and you cannot stop the run, it is difficult to win. All of this without even getting into the kicking situation. John Lunsford seems to be money from 50 yards plus, but no better than a 50/50 inside 40. I won’t even try to explain the psychology of kickers, because I definitely don’t get it. But this has cost Liberty dearly this season. Lunsford’s three misses against the Bulldogs could have been the difference.
The fact that we could even discuss the need for a kicker to win Liberty a game against one of the most putrid offenses in FCS is beyond ridiculous though. Webb had not scored a point in the first quarter of a game this season. Against Liberty, they scored 14. The Bulldogs hadn’t scored more than 23 points all season. Against Liberty, they scored 34. This is the team that got shut out against Wofford the week prior. Just a totally unacceptable performance from a team that likes to call itself an FCS powerhouse.
Some say the entire program has a false sense of entitlement. They say that elite facilities, seemingly infinite uniform combinations, and perks almost no teams have at Liberty’s level have created an environment where the Flames feel they don’t have to work to win these sorts of contests. Just show up and win. We’ve been skeptical of this view point in the past, but how can we dismiss anything after such a grotesque and costly performance on the field?
So who is to blame? This isn’t a team full of inexperienced Freshmen. The Flames are stacked full of 4th and 5th year Seniors who should absolutely know the sort of game in, game out preparation and performance it takes to run through a season. Yet 5th year Senior Quarterback Josh Woodrum seemed to believe after the loss that the team took Gardner-Webb lightly. This was, of course, after he explained that the team was lackadaisical in preparation for Southern Illinois. We have spoken and written highly of Woodrum’s leadership this season, but perhaps we were incorrect. If the team is not prepared two out of three weeks, the Senior Quarterback bears quite a bit of responsibility.
The coaching staff also needs to take some heat for this. Not only should they be assuring that the team does not have the sort of mental and emotional letdown that they have now had twice this year, but they should be scheming better against a squad that Liberty is significantly more talented than. Altogether, it is time to pull back on the expectations for 2015. If it were not for Chima Uzowihe’s hand getting on a kick to finish the 2014 regular season, most of us would be talking about how Liberty had failed to get it done yet again. This team has the talent, but do they have the motivation and consistency to win out? We will have to wait and see over the next month and a half. Until then, this season is on the ropes.