Flames Football Routs Western Carolina to Stay Undefeated

An electric wide receiver play, a suffocating defense and another standout performance by Malik Willis propelled the Liberty Flames football team to a 58-14 drubbing of the Western Carolina Catamounts in Williams Stadium Saturday.

The Catamounts had yet to play a game in the 2020 season, and the Flames took full advantage in the first quarter. After forcing a missed 51-yard field goal, the Flames engineered a 66-yard drive capped off by running back Joshua Mack’s 1-yard dash through the line of scrimmage.

The Flames next two possessions resulted in touchdowns thanks to a 44-yard reception by tight end Johnny Huntley and an 11-yard sprint from quarterback Malik Willis, which continued a personal five-game scoring streak with a rushing touchdown for the signal-caller. By the end of the first half, players from all skill position groups had accounted for a touchdown after wide receiver C.J. Daniels’ 40-yard catch.

Despite leading 28-7 at halftime, Liberty looked a step off the pace compared to the notable victory over Virginia Tech last week. However, Freeze foresaw this and was pleased with how his team responded.

“I’ve been in this long enough to know you celebrate wins,” Freeze said. “I’m a realist, I didn’t expect us to be extremely emotional today and I’m OK with that. I won’t be OK with that in the few games we have coming up, but it was sure good enough today and we’ll celebrate with them on that.”

In the second half, Willis and the offense gave the squad plenty of reason to keep celebrating, however.

Facing third-and-seven on the opening drive of the second half, Liberty went with an empty backfield and appeared to be setting up a wide receiver screen on the right side of the formation. However, Willis faked the pass, causing the defense to bite and leave the middle of the field exposed. Willis saw the opening, tucked the ball and scampered into the endzone untouched for a 43-yard touchdown, putting Liberty ahead 35-7 and squashing any hope of a WCU comeback.

“I haven’t seen a hole that big since high school,” Willis said.

Willis’ last pass of the day was an 83-yard bomb to wide receiver Kevin Shaa, who finished the day with only two receptions but 137 yards and a touchdown. Willis totaled 306 passing yards and three touchdowns, along with 97 rushing yards and two scores.

Daniels, a highly touted freshman in the preseason, had his breakout game with two receptions for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Eight different receivers caught passes as the Flames receiving corps shredded the Catamounts secondary at will.

“Our coaches have told us every week there’s got to be somebody in this group who is going to make a play, and everybody has been stepping up each week,” Daniels said. 

After the running game carried the Flames through the first few games of the season, the receiving corps’ depth and the bounty of playmakers has allowed the passing game to become the center point of the offense.

Kevin Shaa (right) and CJ Daniels (left) combined for three touchdowns against the Catamounts on Saturday.

“Any game it could be any one of the receivers (stepping up),” Shaa said. “From top to bottom, we just have so much depth and we have so much confidence in every single one of us, it’s just a matter whose day it is (to make a play).”

After Catamounts quarterback Mark Wright scored on a three-yard rush to make the score 42-14, Liberty’s second and third-string squad combined with kicker Alex Barbir for 16 more points to close out the scoring. 

Barbir, last week’s hero against the Hokies, kicked a 54-yarder to conclude that scoring run, breaking his previous career record he set on last week’s 51-yard game winner.

Linebacker Carl Poole, who became a scholarship athlete after beginning his career as a preferred walk-on, recorded both his first career interception and his first fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. His performance highlighted another dominant defensive showing from Liberty, as the Flames forced three turnovers and registered four sacks. 

Poole was cleared to play on Tuesday after contracting COVID-19 and missing the Virginia Tech game.

“It was a blessing to be back out there with my guys,” Poole said. “The way my coaches came and hyped me up was great.”

With many backup players on the roster getting playing time as the game wore on, even fourth-string true freshman quarterback Sean Brown took some snaps to close out the win. Freeze was thrilled to see so many of his players in action.

“It’s always fun to see the kids that do all of the things that it takes to be a part of a successful program but yet don’t get on the field a lot,” Freeze said. “You really enjoy it when you do get to give them the chance to be in there and get reps.”

Liberty is now 4-3 all time against Western Carolina.

Saturday’s victory came relatively easily, but next week the Flames will face their third ACC opponent of the season when they travel to Raleigh to take on N.C. State. Kickoff against the Wolfpack is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

John Simmons is the Web Manager. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSimmonsJr7.

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