Special Teams Takes Center Stage as Liberty Thumps Down on ULM, Scoring 28 Points

The Flames 5-year wait for a shutout continues, but they came awfully close Saturday, smothering the visiting ULM Warhawks from the first drive of the afternoon in a 40-7 thrashing that moved the Flames to 4-0 for the fifth time in program history. 

With Malik Willis taking snaps again after missing last week’s game for an elbow injury, Liberty produced a complete performance that saw three touchdowns from the special teams unit, including Liberty’s first punt-return TD since 2015, while the defensive unit forced eight three-and-out punts from ULM. 

“I’ll take a defensive effort like this any day of the week,” Coach Hugh Freeze said after the game. “I thought the effort was there. I thought the attention to detail all week was there. I told people last night at the hotel that they’re going to experience great success because of the way they went about preparing for
the week.”

ULM quarterback Colby Suits never found his offensive rhythm through the muggy Lynchburg afternoon, with Liberty’s defense hounding him and forcing him into two interceptions in the first half. Coming into Saturday’s game, Suits had put up top-five passing numbers in FBS football, throwing for over 1,000 yards over four games, but a miserable stat line of 13-for-29 and 78 yards highlighted the pressure Freeze’s team put him under, no matter what plays he tried.

“That’s huge,” junior safety Javon Scruggs said. “You just kill offense’s momentum, they’re over there trying to draw up (plays) they probably haven’t even run (before), so going out there and executing on first and second down and getting them to those third downs (is crucial).”

Back on the field after a week out due to injury, Willis rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown along with 177 passing yards, but he had some lapses in concentration, fumbling a snap, throwing an interception and overthrowing a few key deep passes.

“At least two (of those throws) have to be hit,” Willis said. “I feel like I could have made a better throw. I feel like at first I was playing a little timid, and then I had to get out of that and start playing like myself, stepping into all my throws and doing the right fundamentals.”

Freeze acknowledged Willis still has some work to do to reach full fitness. 

“Malik to me played like he had been out a lot,” Freeze said. “Even the throws he made that were the right reads were a little off, a little behind people, a little high. … Malik did a lot of good things, ran around and got some first downs and made some good throws. (But) I’ve got to find a way to get us more consistent.” 

Even with Willis readjusting to the game and the rainy conditions, Suits, however, looked even less prepared, rarely finding any kind of rhythm beyond one 13-play drive in the third quarter that still ultimately turned over on downs.

With the Warhawks struggling to get anything going offensively, the Flames racked up points through defense, special teams and a few combinations from the run game – and by the end of the first quarter they were already up 14-0 thanks to a pair of rushing TDs by running back Peytton Pickett and Willis. 

Aside from a couple field goals, however, those touchdowns would be the only contributions the offense made to the scoreboard, with an early 38-yard punt return by Demario Douglas in the first quarter highlighting an area – special teams – that the Flames would target again and again as the game wore on.

On top of a punt return Douglas would run in during the fourth quarter, redshirt freshman and new special teams member Treon Sibley recovered a fumbled punt in the ULM endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter, and blocked another in the third quarter for freshman cornerback Chancellor Smith to snag for a combined three special teams touchdowns.

Flames TE Johnny Huntley hauls in a pass against the Warhakws on Saturday.

“Watching film throughout the week, we stressed how they let the ends go free (on punts), so it was our game plan to bring the pressure, bring the pressure,”Sibley said.

The Flames continued to lean heavily on their defense as the game continued, holding the Warhawks at arm’s length as Sibley’s touchdown and a field goal from kicker Alex Barbir left the game at 24-0 at halftime.

With the Flames at 218 total yards of offense to ULM’s 50 at halftime, the story of the game was set – and Freeze’s offense had done its job. 

Except for another Barbir field goal, the rest of the second half’s 16 points would come from the Flames special teams unit as backup quarterbacks Chris Ferguson and Johnathan Bennett closed out the comfortable win in the fourth quarter.

Aside from a 13-play, 88-yard drive in the third quarter that saw the Warhawks only third-down conversion of the day (out of 16 attempts), ULM’s limp offensive showing proved to be its undoing as the gap progressively widened, with the score at 31-0 by the end of the third. 

As the second half drew to a close, Suits looked up and down field, progressively forced to throw shorter and shorter passes to get any kind of completions and throwing another interception. 

The Warhawks ultimately only got on the scoreboard thanks to backup quarterback Jeremy Hunt, who subbed in during the fourth quarter and put together an eight-play drive for ULM’s only points of the game, finishing the game off at its final of 40-7. 

After the dominant win, the Flames face off next Saturday against their first ACC opponent of the year – the Syracuse Orange, who lost 38-24 to Duke Saturday. It will be a valuable measuring stick from last year’s performance, but for now, Freeze just wants to focus on maintaining consistency. 

“Last week, we didn’t pass the test. I didn’t think we played with as much fire and focus. The whole challenge to the defense on Monday morning was you haven’t been tested like you’re going to get tested,” Freeze said. “The focus and discipline that you’re going to have to have in prepping for this kid (Colby Suits) that’s top five in the nation in passing, you should embrace that test. They sure passed the test.” 

The Flames will look to stay undefeated next week when they travel to take on Syracuse Saturday, Oct. 17, at noon eastern. Coverage of the game can be seen on ACC network or heard on LFSN radio network.

John Nekrasov is the Sports Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @john_nekrasov.

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