Everything has changed

The Liberty football season ends much differently than it did one year ago

Though the 2015 season may have ended sooner than the Liberty Flames football team had hoped, it was a season full of at least individual achievement and some firsts for the program.

The team finished 6-5 overall and 3-3 in conference play, missing the playoffs a year after getting there for the first time in program history in 2014. In an up-and-down season, the Flames notched consecutive wins only once and finished 1-5 in road games, despite going 5-0 at Williams Stadium.

 Coach — Gill does his best Jim Harbaugh. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

Coach — Gill does his best Jim Harbaugh. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

The Flames scheduled two FBS opponents, West Virginia and Georgia State, on the road in 2015. The Flames suffered a tough 41-17 loss at the hands of West Virginia Sept. 12, but beat Georgia State in a 41-33 shootout in the Georgia Dome Oct. 3.

In addition to FBS play, the Flames also grabbed wins against two Top 10 FCS teams, beating No. 8 Montana (Sept. 19) and No. 4 Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), both at home. The Flames came into the season ranked No. 15 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll and climbed as high as No. 10 after beating Montana, the team’s highest ranking since 1990.

Hoping to return to the postseason to build on last year’s success, the Flames started the season 3-2. However, after their win over Georgia State pushed them over .500, they dropped back-to-back conference games to Gardner-Webb and Monmouth to start 0-2 in conference play, a setback they would not be able to overcome. The Flames responded with wins over Kennesaw State and Presbyterian, giving them an outside chance at a share of the Big South title and a shot at the playoffs, until a road loss to No. 11 Charleston Southern effectively ended their season.

The team finished on a high note, defeating rival Coastal Carolina, 24-21, at home in the final game of the season and Coastal’s last contest as a Big South member. However, the three conference losses were the most in Head Coach Turner Gill’s four years at Liberty.

“I think one thing our senior class had to instill into these young (players) is that you can have all the talent in the world, but you still have to go out there and do it,” Flames senior running back Desmond Rice said. “You can have talent and not go out there and do it, and that’s what we did this year.”

Petey — Senior receiver Darrin Peterson in his last game in a Flames uniform. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

Petey — Senior receiver Darrin Peterson in his last game in a Flames uniform. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

The Flames also suffered a season-ending injury at the running back position for the second year in a row. Senior D.J. Abnar sustained an ankle injury in the loss to Gardner-Webb that cut his season and his Liberty career short as the Flames lost their leading rusher from 2014.

It may have been a disappointing season for the Flames, but in certain ways it was also a very memorable one. Multiple seniors in a decorated class made their mark on Liberty football history. Senior quarterback Josh Woodrum became Liberty’s all-time leader in completions (883), passing yards (10,266) and total offense (10,690 yards). Woodrum also became the all-time leading passer in Big South history with 10,266 passing yards.

“I hope (the younger players) can have the success that I was able to have,” Woodrum said. “I’ve been around great players and great coaches, I’ve had great games and I’ve had really bad games. It’s been a tough road, but I just hope I can be a great example to those (young) guys so that when they get here and they want to play great … it’s only going to make the team better.”

Woodrum’s favorite target and All-American wide receiver Darrin Peterson also passed into Liberty football lore this season by breaking every major receiving record in program history. Peterson, a senior, now holds all-time school records for most receiving yards (3,170), receptions (215) and touchdown receptions (27), achieving each record in 2015. His receiving yards are also the most in Big South history.

On the defensive side of the ball, senior defensive end Chima Uzowihe had a record-breaking season of his own. Uzowihe led the Big South with eight sacks, becoming the all-time sack leader in Liberty and Big South history (25), and was named a finalist for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Despite all the individual accolades, the expectations that were so high for this team at the beginning of the season were not met. Although this season ended earlier than they had hoped, Gill said these players, particularly the seniors, have been a part of a very special time in Flames football history.

“I think (the senior class) has set a high standard,” Gill said. “There (have been) many historical things that have happened within this senior class as far as wins against ranked teams, making the playoffs and so on … half of this class contains players that I did not recruit, so we have had a nice little mixture. I’m proud of (the players) and they have really set the standard high.”

Vandenbosch is the sports editor.

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