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Second-Half Effort Gives Bulldogs 27-24 Victory Over Homestanding Flames
The game was certainly a tale of two halves, with Liberty dominating the opening 30 minutes and Gardner-Webb controlling the decisive second half. The Flames finished the first half with a 271-46 total offensive yard advantage over Gardner-Webb, but the Bulldogs evened things out with 313 yards of offense to Liberty's 90 over the last 30 minutes of action.
Liberty wasted little time taking control of the game as the Flames scored on their opening drive of the contest. Liberty kept to the ground on the scoring drive as nine of its 11 plays were of the rushing variety, including a six-yard touchdown run by Zach Terrell. The sophomore cut to the outside and found a hole to give Liberty a 7-0 lead with 9:56 left to play in the opening quarter.
After holding the Bulldogs to just 13 yards on the ensuing drive, the Flames regained possession and marched down the field to seemingly score their second touchdown of the game on a four-yard run by Terrell. But the play was negated on a holding penalty, pushing the Flames back to the 15-yard line. The Flames had to settle for just three points with Zac Kolegue's 23-yard field goal giving Liberty a 10-point lead with 25 seconds left in the quarter.
The score remained the same until late in the second quarter, when Liberty hit paydirt once again. Brock Smith rolled to the right to mislead the defense and found Brandon Turner open over the middle of the field. The junior scampered to the opposite side of the field, including a dive into the corner of the end zone to complete a 26-yard pass play for a touchdown with 49 seconds left before halftime.
Liberty entered the locker room at intermission leading by a 17-0 count and holding a 225-total offensive yard advantage over Gardner-Webb, while tallying 14 first downs to the Bulldogs' three. Terrell passed the 100-yard mark on the ground for the third time in his career and the second against Gardner-Webb, while Smith put together his most impressive half of the season by completing 12-of-17 pass attempts for 147 yards and the score before the break.
However, as much as the first half belonged to the home team, the second half was dominated by the visitors, starting with the opening drive of the third quarter. Devin Campbell completed three-straight 10-plus yard pass attempts, including a 21 yarder to Kory Alston on the first play, to set up a two-yard run by Bubba Wallace for a touchdown just 2:10 into the period.
After a three-and-out series by Liberty, Gardner-Webb kept to the air as 10 of the next 12 plays were passing plays. The drive was capped off by a three-yard strike from Campbell to Austin Gaines. The senior made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone to pull Gardner-Webb within three points, 17-14, at the 8:19 mark of the third.
And for the second-straight drive, Liberty failed to pick up a first down, punting the ball away after three plays and giving the Bulldogs possession at their own 27-yard line. Gardner-Webb quickly moved the ball downfield on a mixture of passing and rushing plays. A nine-yard slant from Campbell to Duvaughn Flagler at 2:33 gave the visitors a 21-17 lead, allowing the Bulldogs to erase a 17-point deficit in under 13 minutes (12:27).
The Flames' offense was able to find its first-half stride on the ensuing drive as Liberty marched down the field on 12 plays for 57 yards, capped off by a one-yard run over the left tackle by Terrell. The touchdown allowed the home team to regain the lead, 24-21, with 12:28 left in the game and gave the running back his 1,000th career rushing yard.
Liberty's defense was finally able to find some answers for Gardner-Webb's second-half passing attack on the following drive as the Bulldogs' drive stalled at Liberty's 26-yard line, forcing Gardner-Webb to settle for a 44-yard field goal by Hunter Smith that knotted the contest at 24 apiece with 9:03 left to play.
The Flames were able to move the ball down the field on the following drive as well, but a key third-down stop at Gardner-Webb's 38-yard line as the Bulldogs held Wesley Cheek to a single yard on a rushing attempt, forced the Flames to punt.
And Gardner-Webb went back to what was working in the second half as Campbell completed 5-of-7 pass attempts to get Smith in field goal range. The senior didn't disappoint as he nailed a 40-yard field goal with five seconds left to seal the victory.
For the fifth-straight conference game, the Flames dropped a Big South Conference contest by six or fewer points. The Liberty-Gardner-Webb series has also been close as the past 11 games have been decided by an average of 5.7 points per game.
The Flames' faithful continued to show up as Liberty recorded the sixth-largest crowd in school history and the third largest in Big South history as 12,056 fans saw the contest.
The scoreboard wasn't the only thing that was close at the end of the day as Liberty outgained Gardner-Webb by two yards (361 to 359), while the Bulldogs held a 20-19 edge in first downs.
Liberty rushed for 198 yards in the contest with 175 yards coming through the efforts of Terrell, who became the 14th player in Big South history to rush for 1,000 career yards. His 175 yards marks the second-highest rushing total of his career. Gardner-Webb was led in rushing by David Montgomery with 33 yards on eight carries.
Campbell overcame his first-half struggles to complete 26-of-41 pass attempts for 293 yards, including 22-of-30 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. Smith finished the game 15-of-24 for 163 yards, but was held to just two completions for 16 yards in the decisive second half.
Both Gaines and Flagler moved over the 100 career catches plateau in the contest with Gaines leading the way with 100 yards on nine receptions and Flagler catching seven catches for 81 yards. Turner paced Liberty's seven different players who finished with receptions, totaling five catches for 63 yards. Wynton Jackson joined Terrell in reaching the 1,000 career yard milestone on the afternoon as the junior's four receptions for 57 yards gives him 1,034 receiving yards in his career.
Gardner-Webb's Mike Pavelko led the Bulldogs' defensive effort with 11 tackles and Dave Simpson followed with eight stops. Ryan Greiser posted a career-high 12 tackles to lead the Flames and Stevie Ray Lloyd followed with eight tackles. Manny Rojas moved into sole possession of second place on the Big South's all-time career tackle list with his six stops on Saturday. The senior now has 314 career tackles to his credit.
The Flames continue Big South Conference action next week when they travel to Conway, S.C., to face co-defending league champions Coastal Carolina on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The Bulldogs also stay in league play as they host VMI in Boiling Springs, N.C., for a 1 p.m. contest.