Flames football season marked by significant victories and four-game losing streak
- Despite early victory over Baylor, Flames struggled to remain consistent with early scoring and ended season 6-5.
- Two Flames players were named on the first-team All-Big South and sophomore quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert was named on the second-team All-Big South.
Although Liberty football’s initial year of their transition to the FBS was filled with a historic victory, unforgettable games and broken records, the season was ultimately riddled by the Flames inability to remain consistent.
The year began on a mountaintop, as the Flames stunned Baylor University 48-45, which was the seventh largest college football upset in the last 25 years. The Flames victory was their first ever win over a Power 5 opponent, and their fifth win over an FBS opponent. Liberty was placed into the spotlight, thanks to their opening night frenzy.
“The brand name of Liberty University got out to the whole world,” head coach Turner Gill said. “It got people to stop, think and research Liberty – what we’re all about, what we stand for and our Christian values. I’m grateful for the late Jerry Falwell, what he did and his vision – those things are coming true.”
The Flames temporarily silenced their FBS critics as they went on to beat Morehead State University and Indiana State University to garner an impressive 3-0 start. Liberty’s dominant start was due in part to their high-powered offense led by sophomore quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert. The Flames offense averaged 536 yards per game as Calvert totaled 12 passing touchdowns, no interceptions and 1,107 passing yards through the first three games.
After the Flames successful start, it seemed as if Liberty was going to roll their way straight to the FBS, but adversity hit in week four.
Liberty traveled to Jacksonville State University and was quickly humbled as the Flames fell to the Gamecocks 31-10. The Flames offense that averaged 49 points per game through the first three weeks was held in check as Liberty began its biggest slump of the season.
The Flames continued to struggle offensively, as they fell to St. Francis University 13-7 in the following week. Liberty began to regain some offensive momentum after the two straight losses, but they suffered their two worst defensive outings in weeks 6 and 7.
The Flames fell to Kennesaw State University 28-42 as they conceded a staggering 514 rushing yards to the third-year program. Liberty was then bested by another Big South member as Monmouth University tallied 608 total yards in their 56-39 victory over the Flames.
After starting 3-0, the Flames endured their first four-game losing streak since 2012, Gill’s first year as the head coach. During the four-game skid, the Flames were outscored 142-84 and they allowed an average of 428 yards per game in that stretch. Another factor that contributed to the four-game slump was Liberty’s tendency to start the game flat, as the Flames were outscored 68-38 in the first half through those four weeks.
“We didn’t play up to our potential,” Gill said. “Execution was a major factor. When our offense played well our defense didn’t. When our defense played well, our offense didn’t. When you’re playing teams that are pretty good and they’ve gotten hot, it’s tough to overcome. We still had our chances, but unfortunately we came up short in that four-game stretch.”
After falling below .500, Liberty bounced back with an assertive 33-17 win over Gardner-Webb University to bring their record back to even at 4-4. The Flames faced adversity once again during family weekend when Duquesne University took a 24-10 lead at half. Liberty rallied back to overcome the Dukes 27-24, in the final five minutes of the game, to regain a winning record of 5-4.
The Flames seemed to have reestablished their identity as they rolled over Presbyterian University 47-28 in their final home game. However, Liberty’s season, and time spent as an FCS team, ended on a sour note as they lost to Charleston Southern University off a last-second 42-yard field goal, finalizing a 6-5 record for the third straight year.
Although Liberty’s approval on Feb. 16, 2017 to become a member of the FBS was a historic milestone, it also signified that the Flames would be ineligible for conference titles and postseason play during the two-year transition. Not having an opportunity to go to the playoffs or claim a title created a unique challenge for the team.
“It’s tough in this transition,” Gill said. “It’s tough to try to continue to motivate your players on a daily basis because you can’t talk about a chance to win a conference championship or playoffs. (However,) we knew ahead of time, just like anything in life, if you know what is expected or what the possibilities are, then you can live with it. If you get better every day, which that’s what you’re called to do, then everything is going to work out. It’s about your growth and this team grew. They did a great job continuing to play hard – that’s what I look at, ‘Did they play with great effort throughout the ball game?’ And I think our players did that.”
The 2017 season was also marked with individual success as 12 Flames earned All-Big South honors.
The Flames leading deep threat, sophomore receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, was named first team All-Big South, as he led the conference in receiving yards with 1,066 and receptions with 69. Gandy-Golden also hauled in 10 receiving touchdowns while also averaging 106 receiving yards per game.
Graduate long snapper Hunter Winstead also received first team All-Big South honors, which was his third All-Big South selection of his career.
Calvert was named to the second team All-Big South list as he recorded a record-breaking year for the Flames, totaling 257 completions on 438 attempts, 3,363 passing yards, 29 passing touchdowns to 6 interceptions and a passing efficiency of 142.3.
The sophomore quarterback’s 447 passing yards against Baylor broke a school and conference single-game record, along with his 44 completions also breaking Liberty’s single game completion record. Calvert also broke the record for passing yards, passing attempts, passing touchdowns and tied the passing completions record.
“It’s outstanding when you can throw the ball 300 yards per game,” Gill said.
As the Flames head into the offseason, one of the foremost issues to address is depth in the trenches.
“We didn’t have as much depth, particularly in the defensive and offensive line,” Gill said. “That’s a key thing for next year is we need to get more depth and we need to get more speed to give us a better opportunity to compete.”
Liberty’s athletic director, Ian McCaw, confirmed that Gill will remain the head coach through the 2018 season, in an article for the News & Advance. Gill realizes that the conclusion of their time in the FCS means that there is a long road ahead of them, filled with tough opponents, which won’t translate into instant success.
“The win-lose record may not be the total answer in the transition,” Gill said. “We’re going to be competitive and we’re always going to coach and play to win every single football game. But, I think the biggest thing is playing hard, and are we improving each and every game. You’re going to have ups and downs, you just hope you don’t have a long-term lull. This year is going to be the biggest adjustment – now playing 12 games, one more than we’ve played before. Then we’re playing higher competition every week.”
The Flames will lose 10 seniors, including defensive standouts defense end Dia’Vante Brown and linebacker Soloman McGinty. Liberty will also lose running back Carrington Mosley, along with their special teams stars, punter Trey Turner and their long snapper Hunter Winstead.
“The 2017 senior class brought a lot more to the surface about Christ,” Gill said. “A lot of the things (don’t reach) the public, but we’re here to train champions for Christ and they demonstrate this in a greater way. From the first year that they were here, all the way until now, those seniors have done a tremendous job teaching and developing our athletes to put God first, to include God in decisions, and this year they really exemplified that. We had guys praying, baptisms in the training room – those are some examples to say: We’re training Champions for Christ. Win, lose or draw, we’re winning no matter what.”