Liberty Football Gears Up for Season Opener Against Western Kentucky
After six months of uncertainty – including two Power 5 league cancellations, multiple schedule adjustments, numerous health and safety protocols and the most bizarre spring and summer in sports history, Liberty football is back.
The Flames are preparing for Saturday’s 2020 season opener against a formidable opponent in Western Kentucky. Led by second-year Head Coach Tyson Helton, the Hilltoppers are coming off of a 9-4 record last year and possess one of the most talented rosters LU will face this fall.
“We have a great challenge ahead of us against a team that is expected to compete for a conference championship in (the) Conference USA,” Liberty Flames Head Coach Hugh Freeze said during a press conference Monday. “(WKU features) 26 returning seniors and 50 (total upppersclassmnen). So, it’s a very mature team that won 9 games last year and certainly are going to be a great test for us to open the season.”
Freeze also announced Monday that Auburn transfer Malik Willis would get the start against Western Kentucky, noting that the quarterback competition is still ongoing. Grad transfer Chris Ferguson will prepare as the team’s backup for the first game.
“We feel very good about (Willis) and Chris (Ferguson), and even (Johnathan Bennett),” Freeze said. “We just felt like Malik will maybe give us a little extra something when plays don’t quite go the way we want with his legs. So, he is going to get the start Saturday.”
Hilltoppers quarterback Tyrrell “Piggy T” Pigrome is a graduate transfer from Maryland, where he played four years, starting only seven games due to injuries. At 5-foot-10-inches and 210 pounds, Pigrome provides a dual threat under center for WKU.
During his time at Maryland, Pigrome threw for 1,777 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while also rushing for 630 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. The grad transfer earned a starting job with the Terrapins during his sophomore year, before he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the second half of the home opener.
“(Pigrome) is an elite athlete at the quarterback position,” Liberty Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Scott Symons said in a press conference Monday. “Any time you play (against) a guy like this with this athletic ability…(it) stresses all levels of your defense.”
Pigrome played in several big games at Maryland, most notably when leading the Terrapins to a near upset against Ohio State in 2018. After scoring a touchdown in overtime, Pigrome missed an open receiver in the endzone on the two-point conversion attempt that would have won the game for Maryland.
On the other side of the ball, Liberty’s experienced offensive line will have to slow down the pass rush of the Hilltoppers, led by senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone.
Malone is ranked as the No. 89 NFL draft prospect in the country by Pro Football Focus after he racked up 14 sacks, 12 hits and 26 pressures in 2019.
“They have a special, special player on No. 10,” Freeze said. “Man, he is a different dude, DeAngelo Malone. He is an NFL guy and is a handful that can create some negative plays in a hurry, and we definitely don’t need to be behind the chains.”
One advantage WKU has over Liberty is actual game experience.
The Hilltoppers opened up their season with a 35-21 loss to Louisville Saturday, Sept. 12, that revealed some areas of weakness, but also gave the team an advantage over LU in allowing the new players on both sides of the ball to adjust to live competition.
During the game, Western Kentucky opened up a 7-0 lead early after Louisville fumbled the snap on a punt, setting up the Hilltoppers at the goal line. After that, the game went downhill quickly for WKU, as the offense struggled to move the ball and the defense spent extensive time on the field.
Cardinals quarterback Micale Cunningham had a career-best performance, exploiting the Hilltoppers secondary with several long touchdown throws. He completed 19-of-34 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns in the win for Louisville.
“I felt like we were in some good positions to stop them and we didn’t get it done, but it’s tough also to play defense when we’re out there a lot, and our offense put our defense out there a lot,” Helton said in an interview with the Bowling Green Daily News.
Pigrome battled all game to get the Hilltoppers offense going but ended with a modest stat line of 129 yards and one touchdown passing. He did, however, lead WKU in rushing with 68 yards on 17 carries.
Western Kentucky also capitalized on several big plays in the game against Louisville. In addition to recovering the fumbled punt in the first quarter, redshirt senior defensive back Omari Alexander blocked a punt during the second half that set up the Hilltoppers second score.
While he was happy with his special teams play, Alexander expressed overall frustration with the way the Hilltoppers performed in their season opener.
“I don’t think it was so much knocking the rust off, it was just the adjustments and our discipline,” Alexander said to the Bowling Green Daily News. “We came out flat, bottom line. We came out flat and that’s why they went up. It’s nothing that we can’t fix.”
Whether or not the Hilltoppers can fix their woes on both sides of the ball will make the difference in the Flames season opener this week. While WKU might have a game under the team’s belt, Liberty is prepared and ready for another FBS campaign under Freeze.
The Hilltoppers and Flames will square off Saturday at noon EST on ESPNU.
Christian Weaner is the Assistant Sports Reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @christianweaner.