Sep 15, 2009

Flames Scorch Eagles in Home Opener

by Daniel Martinez

No one who watched the Sept. 12 football game between Liberty University and North Carolina Central University will ever know exactly what Liberty coach Danny Rocco told his football team during the halftime break. Many must have wondered.

After all, the anticipation and festivities leading up to the 2009 football season home opener had given way to an uncomfortably close contest early on. It was a start that left the home team trudging into the locker room at halftime on the wrong end of a 10-7 score with the 16,112 in attendance, the largest crowd in school history, murmuring in discomfort behind them.

No one who watched only the game will know what Coach Rocco said to his team just then, but after 30 more minutes of football had elapsed and the game was over, it seemed quite possible that the coach had borrowed the battle cry from the Fantastic 4 — “it’s clobbering time” — to rally his team. Because the Flames erased memories of their unimpressive early showing with an electric second half performance, combining 215 yards of total offense with rock solid defense to produce 28 unanswered points and their first win (35-10) of the 2009 season.

The story for the Flames was first an all-around inconsistent showing in the first half. A chance to take an early lead was squandered when sophomore kicker Matt Bevins’ 24-yard field goal attempt clanged off the right post, leaving the game scoreless and drawing a loud groan from the Liberty faithful.

The series of plays brought into question that which Coach Rocco would call one of the keys to the game — momentum.

“Momentum is the hardest thing in sports to define or grasp,” Rocco said.

Liberty seized momentum on an interception by senior linebacker Wes Cheek on NCCU’s fourth play of the game, but after failing to score, they scuffled through the remainder of the first half, losing possession on a penalty, coughing a fumble deep in their own territory after dropping a punt return, giving NCCU two chances in a row by failing to recover on a trick play onside kick after the Eagles’ first score and being forced to punt on two straight possessions. “There were some mental breakdowns on special teams,” Rocco said.

Injury was added to these insults when the Flames’ starting quarterback, senior Tommy Beecher, left the game after being roughed up by tacklers on Liberty’s second possession.

The home team found itself trailing after NCCU scored on a six-yard touchdown pass with just over a minute remaining in the first quarter.

Liberty did manage to gain momentum just before halftime, when sophomore Mike Brown, the multi-position star of the West Virginia contest who became full-time quarterback with Beecher’s exit, scooted past defenders for a seven-yard touchdown rush with 28 seconds left in play. The teams headed into their locker rooms with the visitors leading 10-7.

When asked about his approach after what had been an ugly first half during the Coach Rocco said he refused to show any panic.

“[The players] were down — concerned — so I just said we needed to clean some things up. I asked them if they wanted a fight and they did,” Rocco said.

The Flames’ fighting spirit began to show immediately in the second half, when freshman running back Aldreakis Allen nearly reached midfield with a 32-yard gain on the opening kickoff on what Brown called the game’s “turning point.”

“It gave us great field position, and that drive (five minutes, 10 plays, 52 yards) gave us confidence for the rest of the game,” Brown said.

The drive gave the Flames their first lead of the game, 13-10, and they would not relinquish it.

“I give [Liberty] some credit,” NCCU Head Coach Mose Rison said. “They are every bit as good as I thought they were. [Coach Rocco’s] got a great program.”

“I had said (at halftime) a lot of good is going to come out of this night,” Rocco said. “I was real proud of our kids in the second half.”

After taking the lead on senior tight end Dominique Jones’
one-yard touchdown reception, the Flames added insurance in the fourth quarter with a scoring drive that elapsed in five seconds, required one play and covered only one yard.

It started when junior linebacker Terry Adams plowed into NCCU quarterback Johnson and pushed the Eagles back into their own end zone. The ball was jarred loose by Adams’ hit, skipping back to the one-yard line. The Flames recovered, and Allen carried the ball over the line on the next play, diving through a scrum of people to score Liberty’s third touchdown.

The Eagles managed just a short possession before punting, giving Liberty the chance to pad its 21-10 lead. It did not take the Flames long to capitalize. After the punt return brought the Flames to their own 26-yard line, Brown handed the ball off to sophomore B.J. Hayes. Hayes ran 74 yards for a score, tying for the sixth longest touchdown run in Liberty football history.“The line opened up a hole, I found it, and I went through,” he said.

Hayes’ run increased Liberty’s advantage to 28-10, and finished its rampage less than four minutes later when freshman running back SirChauncey Holloway scored on a four-yard sprint over the line, giving the Flames a 25-point lead, 35-10.

“The defense turned it around best,” Rocco said of his team’s effort. “They took the ball away and gave us chances to score. They were the spark tonight.”

The team’s leading tackler was junior Doncel Bolt with 10 while Cheek tied senior Ian Childress for second with eight.

Liberty bested NCCU with 328 yards of total offense (to the Eagles’ 213), even as the Flames were beaten out in passing yards, 97-170. It was the running game that really stepped up for Liberty, and, in Brown’s opinion, was the biggest factor in the win.

“We really had to establish it,” he said, of the 231 yards Liberty gained on the ground, versus 43 by the Eagles. “We opened holes and gathered great yardage.” ?

Personally, Brown completed 10-of-12 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 37 yards and scoring another touchdown. Hayes gathered 129 total yards on his 11 carries.
The win evens Liberty’s record to 1-1. Rocco and the Flames now look forward to next Saturday at Lafayette, who beat the Flames at home last year, 35-21.

Contact Daniel Martinez at dpmartinez@liberty.edu.

 

 

 


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