Flames come up just short ­— again

Gill still searching for first win after tough loss to Spartans

Inches — Running back Aldreakis Allen makes his last diving attempt to tie the game in the closing seconds. Photo credit: Ruth Bibby

Flames faithful that missed the fourth quarter of the season-opener against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. got a rerun if they attended Liberty’s home opener against Norfolk State Saturday, Sept. 8.

In a stunningly similar turn of events in the final seconds of the game, Liberty held the ball in scoring position on fourth down at the one.

Against Wake Forest, it was Brian Hudson throwing to Justin Gunn. This week, it was Josh Woodrum throwing to fullback Nicky Fualaau. Woodrum had just taken over for an injured Hudson and had moved the team 52 yards, one yard away from the Norfolk State goal line.

The ball hit Fualaau’s hands in the end zone — the same time the Spartan defender did. The Flames first win of the season tumbled to the ground and the Flames surrendered the ball on downs, having lost 31-24.

“I’m proud of our players. They played a very good opponent and we played pretty well there, particularly in the first half,” head coach Turner Gill said. “They played a little bit better than us in the second half. But I thought that we had a good game plan … we had a few executions we didn’t do as well with in the second half. But we’ll get these things corrected and we’ll come back ready to go here next week.”

Liberty capitalized on an early turnover when a Norfolk State punt returner muffed a punt, which was then recovered by Kenny Scott at the Spartan 27-yard line. Hudson made them pay, hitting junior running back Aldreakis Allen on a 23-yard scoring strike to claim an early lead.

On their next possession, the Flames lost left guard Malcolm Boyd to a severe leg injury. Boyd’s injury required a stretcher and ambulance. Greg Ray, Boyd’s replacement, performed serviceably the rest of the game.

“As soon as Malcolm went down, we told Greg, the whole offense, even the coaching staff, ‘We believe in you,’” Allen said.

“We were still able to do the things we wanted to do, having Greg Ray in the game,” Gill said.

Sack attack — The Flames front seven made life miserable for Spartan QBs. Photo credit: Ruth Bibby

The running game was among the successes claimed by the patched-up offensive line, with Allen grinding his way to 127 yards on the ground.

“I thought he came in and gave us a lift,” Gill said. “He showed some big play ability, being able to make people miss and catch the ball a little bit and run the ball — some great runs.”

However, the Spartan running game, led by running back Brendon Riddick, had no difficulty moving down the field either. Riddick gained 71 yards on a run up the middle on the Spartans first scoring drive, breaking several tackles and nearly finding the end zone. He found it a couple of plays later on a one-yard run that evened the score at seven.

The Flames answered immediately. Team captain Kevin Fogg, last year’s national kickoff return leader, returned to his 2011 form, bringing the ball back 67 yards even after a holding penalty was assessed. The return gave Liberty prime starting field position at the Spartan 43-yard line.

Pat Kelly moved the chains on the first play of the drive, leapfrogging a defender en route to a 29-yard gain down to the Spartan 14. SirChauncey Holloway put the ball in the end zone shortly thereafter on a six-yard carry. John Lunsford tacked on a 36-yard field goal to give Liberty a 17-7 advantage at the half.

In the second half, Riddick continued to punish the Liberty defense, score a 10-yard touchdown run. The point after attempt was blocked, making the score 17-13. Riddick would finish the game with 150 yards rushing.

The Spartans scored again just over a minute later on an 83-yard punt return by Keith Johnson to take the lead. A two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the score 19-17. Fogg answered with a 77-yard punt return, to regain the lead for Liberty 24-19.

“(Fogg) is a big time playmaker for us in every phase — defense and special teams when he gets a chance to touch the ball,” Gill said. “He made some outstanding plays for us on the defensive side of the ball and obviously a great punt return that was a big thing that lifted our second half for us.”

Fogg’s efforts were spoiled by special teams mistakes. Twice in the fourth quarter the Flames defense forced a punting situation, but the Spartans offense was able to stay on the field. A successful fake punt resulted in a two-yard touchdown run by Riddick, and a running into the kicker call on an ensuing drive spoiled a gutsy defensive stand and allowed the Spartans to run additional time off the clock.

On Liberty’s next offensive possession, a contested call on a fumble by Hudson led to a 41-yard runback for a Spartan touchdown. Hudson was injured on the play and did not return. Reaction to the call was not favorable.

“I’m not going to comment on the ref situation there but being three feet away it certainly looked like (Hudson) was down,” Pat Kelly said. “Not a whole lot we can do about it, we thought we could review the play — couldn’t do it. The refs made the call, and that was the end of it.”

Perspectives from the near sideline were similar.

“I thought he was down, but in AA we don’t get the whole challenge thing. It kind of sucks, but if they don’t make the call, then you got to play ball,” Fogg said.

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