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Defense and Special Teams Shine in Liberty's Season-Opening Victory over Tusculum
Prior to the start of the contest, Liberty ceremonially honored founder Dr. Jerry Falwell, who passed away last May, by starting a new game day tradition. Members of the University Police force raised a No. 71 flag underneath the Liberty Flames flag above the North end zone, just prior to the team taking the field, bringing the 14,925 fans in attendance to the feet.
The attendance figure marked the second highest attended game in program history, falling short of just one game, Liberty's Homecoming contest last year to William & Mary, which drew a program best 15,631 fans on Oct. 14, 2006.
With the victory, the Flames move to 1-0 on the year and push their record to 19-2 in home openers over the past 21 seasons. The loss drops Tusculum to 0-2 on the year.
The Flames wasted little time getting on the scoreboard, as Liberty capped off a seven-play, 48-yard drive with a 37-yard field goal by Noah Greenbaum, staking Liberty to a 3-0 lead, with 12:11 left in the first.
Of the seven plays, Zach Terrell was handed the ball four times for 14 yards, but the drive was highlighted by a 29-yard, out-of-bound pass play from Brock Smith to Brandon Turner.
Liberty had a chance to push its margin to six points on the second-to-last play of the first quarter, but Greenbaum's 29-yard field goal was blocked by Adrian Samples, leaving Liberty's lead at three points to close out the quarter.
The Flames stopped Tusculum on the ensuing kickoff with a thee-and-out series, but Wynton Jackson was hit by Chris Young, forcing the return specialist to cough up the ball on the resulting punt. Young was quick enough to gather himself and collect the football, giving the Pioneers a new set of downs at Liberty's 32-yard line.
And the Pioneers made the most of the second chance, as seven plays later, Corey Russell rushed up the middle for a touchdown with 10:42 left to play before halftime.
On the drive, Liberty had the Pioneers stopped at the five-yard line three plays beforehand, but Liberty was whistled for a dead ball unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to give Tusculum a new set of downs, which they took advantage.
Liberty quickly regained the momentum, as Smith drove the Flames down field on the next drive. The quarterback completed 3-of-5 passes, including a 50-yarder to Dominic Bolden, who was pushed out of bounds just shy of the goal line. The strike set up a Terrell run up the middle of the line, allowing the Flames to regain the lead, 10-7, at the 9:34.
After another three-and-out series, the Pioneers were again forced to punt. John Gregory booted the ball to the Liberty 35-yard line, where it was fielded by Jackson. This time, the senior cleanly fielded the ball, and after several key blocks down field, Jackson found the end zone for the score, pushing Liberty's lead to 17-7.
The Flames quickly added to its lead on the third play of Tusculum's next drive. Liberty newcomer Ryan Best picked off Russell's pass over the middle, and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown at 7:16, giving the Flames a 24-7 halftime advantage.
The score remained the same until Liberty's final drive of the third quarter. Six-straight rushing plays led to the Flames' fourth touchdown of the evening, when Wes Cheek cut left for a 10-yard touchdown bolt to push Liberty's lead to 31-7 with 73 seconds left in the period.
Both teams tacked on additional touchdowns in the fourth quarter with most of their back-ups on the field.
Tusculum capped of its longest drive of the evening, when Russell found Ryan Tallent open on a 10-yard sideline pass for a touchdown to complete a 13-play, 65-yard drive with 10:29 left in the contest.
The Pioneers forced the Flames to punt on the ensuing drive, but Ian Childress intercepted Russelll for the fourth time on the evening. The linebacker picked off the pass at the Tusculum 18-yard line and returned it to the two.
Three plays later, Cheek bowled through the middle on a one-yard score with 6:16 remaining, providing Liberty with its final margin of victory.
Turnovers proved costly for the Pioneers, as Tusculum committed five giveaways (one fumble and four interceptions), leading to 14 of Liberty's 38 points. The turnover total marked the most Liberty has caused since the Flames forced six to close out the 2005 campaign at Norfolk State.
Terrell tallied the third-best performance of his Liberty career, leading the ground attack with 153 yards on 21 carries, a 7.3 yards per carry average. Terrell's one-yard scamper in the second quarter pushed the junior's streak to seven straight games with a rushing touchdown.
Smith finished the contest by completing 13-of-25 attempts for 145 yards, while his counterpart Russell was 16-for-36, with four interceptions, for 117 yards.
Bolden's 50-yard reception in the second enable the junior to lead the team with four receptions for 63 yards.
Brandon Turner and Jackson had momentous evenings, as Liberty's dynamic receiving duo both moved over the 100 career reception mark. Turner caught four passes for 57 yards, giving him 101 career receptions. Jackson caught three passes for 13 yards, enabling him to hit the century mark on the nose.
Nick Hursky had a banner evening on the defensive side of the ball, leading the squad with 12 tackles, two tackles for a loss (11 yards) and forced fumble. Stevie Ray Lloyd followed closely behind, with nine tackles and fumble recovery.
Liberty closes out a brief two-game, home opening stand next weekend, when the Flames welcome Shippensburg to Williams Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:05 p.m.