Liberty Triumphs Over Coastal Carolina, Defends Cure Bowl Title
It really couldn’t have ended any other way. A late fumble. An overtime slog. A blocked field goal. Liberty’s Cure Bowl matchup Saturday against bitter rivals Coastal Carolina had everything – and it served up a 2020 storybook ending that will instantly take its place as the pinnacle of this rivalry.
Liberty-Coastal games have been decided by blocked field goals before (twice, actually), but this time, with a bowl win on the line, the stakes couldn’t have been higher – and Flames defensive tackle Elijah James rose to the challenge. Stretching out his right hand, he slapped the ball out of the air and sent the Flames fans in Orlando, Florida, into raptures to seal the Flames 37-34 overtime win in Liberty’s second consecutive Cure Bowl victory.
Taking home the Flames first victory over a top-25 team in program history, Freeze’s players more than made up for their missed opportunity to beat the Chanticleers earlier this season due to COVID-19 cancellations – and the story of 2020’s FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl will live long in Liberty memories.
Coming into the night, both offenses ranked in the top 20 nationally, and the usual suspects shined for the Flames and Chanticleers alike. Liberty quarterback Malik Willis set personal, Liberty and Cure Bowl records with four rushing touchdowns, two of which came in the first quarter. The Flames converted two fourth downs on separate scoring drives that saw Liberty firmly grasp the momentum after the opening frame while holding the Chanticleers scoreless in the first quarter for the first time all year.
Coastal Carolina responded with a compelling second quarter as Chanticleers freshman quarterback Grayson McCall sparked an offense that looked lethargic in the first 15 minutes. Two fields goals by Massimo Biscardi and a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Isaiah Likely got Coastal to within four points of the Flames lead as both sides went to the locker rooms.
Coastal Carolina Head Coach Jamey Chadwell gave McCall glowing praise for the young signal-caller’s poise under pressure.
“He’s got a maturity to him that is hard to compare to a lot of people,” Chadwell said. “He’s competitive, he makes plays and he loves what he does. He’s got a contagious spirit on the field, guys want to play hard and compete for him.”
McCall provided the offensive highlight of the night in the third quarter. After being flushed from the pocket to his left, McCall threw a 43-yard dime to wide receiver Greg Latushko (his first scoring catch of the season) to pull the score to 24-19.
However, Willis was not finished making highlight reel plays. Despite two interceptions, Willis effectively balanced Liberty’s passing attack with its trademark ground game. On several third-and-longs, Willis would improvise and move the chains with his legs, frustrating a Chanticleers defense that tried everything it could to slow him down.
“You can see why he’s a five-star quarterback. We couldn’t get him off the field,” Chadwell said. “We dropped eight into coverage on him, we spied him, we tried to blitz and he’d just outrun us.”
Despite Willis accounting for 357 yards of total offense and scoring 34 points in regulation, the Flames found themselves tied after another Latushko touchdown and McCall running in the subsequent two-point conversion with 3:01 remaining.
After getting the ball back, Liberty sliced and diced its way to the Chanticleer’s five-yard line. Coastal had no timeouts and 1:35 remained on the clock.
Flames head coach Hugh Freeze elected to run the ball and drain the clock to just a few seconds and kick a chip-shot field goal as time expired, instead of immediately trying to score a touchdown.
But it all went horribly wrong when running back Joshua Mack fumbled the ball on the one-yard line, giving the ball back to Coastal with 41 seconds left and echoing the drama of Liberty’s late loss to N.C. State earlier this season.
Freeze stood by his strategy in the postgame conference, saying the only thing wrong with their execution was the fumble.
“I don’t think we had time management issues, we just didn’t take care of the ball,” Freeze said. “I probably need to coach it better, but (Mack) needed to just lunge and not stand up.”
In a game that saw countless momentum shifts and lots of chippy trash talk, this felt like a game-defining moment for the worse for the Flames.
But Liberty found a way to stay focused through all of it, and Willis made sure Mack did not stay in regret for too long.
“I did not want Mack getting down. Everyone makes mistakes,” Willis said. “We just couldn’t let them get inside our minds.”
In overtime, the Flames offense stalled and kicker Alex Barbir drilled a 44-yard field goal. Coastal Carolina tried three passing plays but all fell incomplete, setting up Biscardi with a 42-yard attempt to keep his team’s unbeaten season alive.
The snap was clean, the placement was good, and the kick seemed to have the distance. But the right hand of defensive tackle Elijah James stuffed the potential tying kick, and Liberty’s dream season ended with a victory that was as memorable as it was stressful.
“It’s my first time blocking a field goal. (I’ve) never been able to get to one before,” James said. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight. It was even more of a dogfight than we expected.”
In addition to being James’ first block, it was the Chanticleer’s first blocked field goal of the season and Liberty’s first stuff of the year.
Two other Liberty-Coastal games have been decided by blocked field goals in the past, with the first being a 55-52 double overtime Chanticleer victory in 2013 and the second a 15-14 Flames triumph in 2014.
The Cure Bowl victory was just one of countless milestones in a season for the ages for Liberty: two wins over Power 5 schools, a program best 8-0 start and numerous offensive records shattered. Liberty now joins Appalachian State as one of the only two schools in the nation to win bowl games in their first two years of eligibility in the FBS.
For Freeze, wining bowl games is nothing new – he won the 2016 Sugar Bowl as head coach of Ole Miss over Oklahoma State in 2016 and last year’s Cure Bowl with Liberty over Georgia Southern. But in a season where COVID-19 put the entire season in jeopardy and forced the Flames to cancel a scheduled meeting with Coastal Carolina because of a team outbreak, Freeze said he found an extra level of satisfaction with this season.
“When you go through difficult times that strain you physically and mentally, and you do it with a group of people together, whether you have to dig, claw, scratch, fight and then you get through the other side victorious, it makes it worth living and these memories are ones that will last,” Freeze said.
Willis, who took home game MVP honors, hopes that this season serves as the standard for future teams – and that they will exceed that standard.
“It’s all just about continuing to build,” Willis said. “This season was amazing, but I hope future teams will try to come and beat what we did.”
John Simmons is the Web Manager. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSimmonsJr7.