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Flames Finish Season With Third-Straight Victory After 38-32 Win Over VMI
The victory, Liberty's third straight and second against a league opponent, raises the Flames' record to 6-5 on the season and 2-2 in Big South play. With the season-ending victory, Liberty's five-win improvement over last year's 1-10 season ties for the best turnaround in the nation and gives Liberty's its first winning season since 2003 and 14th in school history.
For the second-straight week and the fifth time this year, Liberty put points on the scoreboard on its opening drive of the game as the Flames marched downfield 71 yards on nine plays, taking a 7-0 lead on a two-yard rush up the middle by Rashad Jennings.
The sophomore accounted for 46 of those yards on six carries, ending the drive with his 10th rushing touchdown of the year at the 9:59 mark of the first.
The score remained the same until the fourth play of the second quarter as Zac Kolegue connected on a 36-yard field goal with 13:36 left to play before halftime. However, the Flames could have had more as they started the quarter at the four-yard line. But, a false start penalty and an 11-yard sack by Charlie Liesfield and Terrell Allen forced Liberty to settle for just three.
VMI got on the scoreboard on the ensuing drive as Barrett Way capped off an 11-play, 66-yard drive that ate up 5:33 on the game clock with a 31-yard field goal at 8:03 in the period. This marked just the fifth time this year that a Liberty opponent has scored on the Flames during the first 30 minutes of the game.
Liberty quickly answered back on the following drive as Brock Smith completed a pair of short yardage passes to get to midfield, setting up Wynton Jackson who made a one-handed catch over the middle and faked out the lone defender between him and the end zone as the junior's 43-yard reception gave Liberty a 17-3 at 6:02.
Three plays later, VMI's Joey Robinson took a pitch on the near side of the field, but E.L. Estes brought him to a stop, forcing him to fumble the ball. Pierre Penn picked up the loose ball and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown, pushing Liberty's lead to 24-3.
The Keydets cut into Liberty's lead on their final drive before halftime as backup quarterback Kyle Hughes found Willie Bell open just before the goal line and the wide out dove over the line with 8.9 left. Trey Jacobs was able to get through the line of scrimmage on the ensuing point after attempt and block the kick, leaving the score at 24-9 at the break.
VMI continued to close the gap as the Keydets scored on the opening drive of the second half. VMI kept the ball on the ground for eight-straight plays, including a 12-yard scoring burst up the middle by Sean Mizzer, cutting Liberty's lead to 24-16 at the 11:12 mark.
The momentum stayed with the homestanding Keydets as after holding the Flames to a three-and-out series, VMI took over near midfield. 10 plays and 57 yards later, Mizzer found a hole over the right tackle for his second rushing touchdown of the afternoon, a one-yard scamper, to pull VMI within two points, 24-22, at the 4:20 mark of the third.
The Keydets went for two and Hughes found Mizzer open in the flat, but Stevie Ray Lloyd tackled the back short of the end zone to allow Liberty to keep a two-point lead.
However, the two-point lead quickly turned into a nine-point advantage after Dominic Bolden found a few holes in VMI's kickoff return coverage and the sophomore returned the kickoff 97 yards, extending Liberty's lead to 31-22 with 4:02 left to play in the third.
The return, Liberty's third kickoff return for a touchdown this season and the second by Bolden, tied Sam Gado's school record as he returned one 97 yards against Coastal Carolina for a score on October 23, 2003, in Conway, S.C.
VMI continued to keep things interesting as the Keydets pieced together the second-longest opponent drive of the season at 15 plays to slowly move downfield and score on a two-yard run by Derek Smith at 12:25, trimming the lead to 31-29.
Liberty finally got a chance to get its offense back on the field and the Flames ate up some clock as they rushed the ball nine-straight plays to move 50 yards, capped off by a 13-yard burst up the middle by Zach Terrell for a touchdown to give Liberty a 38-29 edge.
The Keydets continued to move the ball on the following drive, but Liberty's defense was able to keep VMI out of the end zone as the Keydets had to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Way, pulling the home team within six, 38-32, with 2:53 left to play.
After gaining possession of the ball on a on-side kick, Liberty only moved the ball seven yards, but it was the final four up the middle by Jennings on a fourth-and-one play at the VMI 38-yard line that sealed the victory as the Keydets were out of time outs, allowing Liberty to run the clock out.
VMI dominated almost every aspect of the game statistically, except in the point column, as the Keydets out-gained the Flames 381 to 242 yards, had 75 plays to the Flames 44, and finished with a 36:34 to 23:26 time of possession advantage.
Jennings led the Flames with 111 yards on 21 carries, his fifth 100-yard game of the year, giving the sophomore 1,020 yards on the season to make him the sixth player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Terrell rushed for 28 yards on six carries and a score, his 13th rushing touchdown of the year, tying him with Glenn Inverso for sixth most rushing touchdowns in a season in school history.
VMI finished the game with 324 rushing yards, the most by any Liberty opponent since William & Mary rushed for 335 yards last year on September 24, with Mizzer leading the team with 171 yards and two scores to push the running back over the 1,000 yard mark on the season (1,022 yards).
Smith finished the game, completing 8-of-12 passes for 127 yards and score. Hughes led the Keydets as he completed 3-of-6 attempts for 57 yards.
Ryan Greiser and Lloyd led the Flames on the afternoon defensively as the pair of defenders finished the game with 12 tackles each. Manny Rojas finished third on the afternoon with eight stops, allowing him to finish his career with 348 career tackles, the second most in Big South Conference history.
Liberty finished the season on a three-game winning streak and the Flames break the school record for fewest points allowed in a season. Liberty allowed just 172 points this season (15.6 points per game), breaking the previous school record of 176 set during the 1979 season when the Flames finished the year with a 9-1-1 record.