Flames Football Takes Down Troy on the Road

Liberty football followed last week’s dismantling of the Campbell Camels with another strong showing against the Troy Trojans in a 21-13 victory Sept. 11. 

After blowing out Campbell by 41 points, Liberty entered Saturday’s matchup as the slight favorite against the Trojans. Troy, however, fresh off of a 55-3 demolition of Southern University, began the game with the momentum. 

After Liberty won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, Troy received the kickoff and systematically marched down the field. Combining competent runs with smart passing, the Trojans’ offense took the ball 75 yards and capped off the drive with a five-yard rushing touchdown to go up 7-0. 

Liberty responded with a respectable drive of its own, driving 75 yards in only nine plays. The final of these was an electrifying 32-yard touchdown pass by Malik Willis to Demario Douglas to balance the score at seven a-piece. 

Troy failed to replicate the success it saw on the opening drive and after reaching as far as the Liberty 44 yard line, the Trojans punted the ball back to the Flames. 

Liberty once again refused to waste the opportunity with the ball and slowly worked its way towards the end zone. A risky decision by Coach Hugh Freeze to keep the offense on the field on a fourth and goal resulted in a two-yard touchdown pass by Willis to tight end Jerome Jackson.

The next four drives resulted in little ground gained by either side with three three-and-outs. Liberty was still able to enter halftime leading 14-7.

Quarter three began the same way the previous had ended, with yet another punt. After eating 8:20 off the clock, the Flames once again punted to the Trojans. 

Troy’s offensive woes continued in the third quarter as well, with quarterback Tyler Powell throwing a costly interception on the third play of the drive, allowing the Flames to take over on Troy’s 39 yard line.

The Flames failed to capitalize on the excellent field position and punted yet again after losing a net 10 yards on the drive. Another quick drive by Troy lead to a punt after six plays. 

In perhaps the most dominant drive for the Flames, Liberty marched 90 yards in eight plays. A four-yard rush by Willis with 12:22 left in the fourth quarter increased Liberty’s lead to 14 points and ultimately proved to be the game-winning score.

Quarterback Malik Willis continued to cause Troy problems in both the running and passing game,  scoring three total touchdowns. Photo by Brent Tyrrell (@brenttyrell)

A poor three-play drive by Troy forced the team to hand the ball back over to the Flames offense. 

Liberty’s incredible running offense proved crucial as the team marched down the field and burned 6:43 off the clock. The team then lined up for a potential game-sealing field-goal by kicker Alex Barbir. The Trojan defense refused to surrender and blocked the kick— the defense’s only major highlight play for  the night. 

Following the blocked field goal, Troy’s offense found a new sense of urgency and hurried toward the end zone. In nine plays, the Trojans covered 64 yards of turf, the biggest play being a 35-yard bomb by Powell to receiver Luke Whittemore, but officials ruled the catch just short of the goal line. However, the determined Trojans pushed through to score a second time. A blocked extra point by the Flames kept the score at 21-13 with 1:14 left in regulation. 

Time proved to be an adversary for the Trojans, however, and a botched onside kick resulted in Willis taking two kneel downs to seal the game. 

While the Flames demonstrated skill in several areas in the game, the biggest takeaway was the emphasis Malik and company placed in keeping the ball on the ground. Liberty totaled 47 rush attempts as opposed to a mere 18 passes. This emphasis paid dividends for the team as the Flames racked up 185 yards on the ground. 

On the other side of the ball, Liberty kept Troy’s run game in check, limiting the Trojans to 21 rushing yards from 24 attempts. 

After the game, Freeze demonstrated approval over the strong performance of the Flames’ defensive unit, who netted five sacks. 

“I thought our defensive staff and kids just played a solid, solid football game,” Freeze said. “Anytime you hold somebody to rushing yards of [21], that’s pretty good. We’ll take that anytime.”

One player who stood out for Liberty was linebacker Storey Jackson, who recorded 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks on the night. He credited adjustment of defensive pressure as the reason the team succeeded in limiting the Trojans’ offense. 

“We really just tried to match their energy and their tempo and with that we started bringing a lot more people at the quarterback off the spot and making him make quick decisions and just bringing that pressure,” Jackson said. 

As is typically the case in Liberty football games, Willis continued to build an impressive college resume. He threw for 154 yards with two touchdowns and added 93 yards on the ground, but the Trojans managed to sack Willis five times. Willis viewed this as an opportunity to continue to improve and placed any blame for offensive mishaps on himself. 

“I can’t make the o-line look like they’re not doing a good job because whatever they are doing is enough,” Willis said. “They’re out there straining. They’re out there putting the effort in, so I shouldn’t put them in a position where it looks like it’s all their fault because it’s an 11-man game and we’re all on the same team. It’s not about one position group.”

Willis also demonstrated his drive to perform at the top of his game by stressing more work in practices. 

“We’ve got to practice better,” Willis said. “That’s what it comes down to. It’s not just going to happen on Saturdays regardless of how talented you feel the group is, how much comradery we have together. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to go out there and execute at practice so we can execute on Saturdays.” 

Liberty will next face Old Dominion Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. in the teams’ first matchup since Liberty trounced the Monarchs 52-10 in the Flames inaugural game as an FBS program.  

Shields is the asst. sports editor. Find him on Facebook.

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