Seniors star in Liberty’s LendingTree Bowl win
Liberty football’s impressive 56-20 trouncing of Eastern Michigan in the 2021 Lending Tree Bowl demonstrated the incredible poise of the team and provided a fitting send-off for the senior class.
Just as was the case all year, Liberty relied on its upperclassman to provide the boost the team needed to earn the victory against the Eagles.
One of the most impactful and well-known upperclassmen in program history, quarterback Malik Willis, dominated EMU’s defenders throughout the night. He continued to demonstrate why he is a projected by some as a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft by notching five total touchdowns. He also contributed 231 passing yards and 58 yards on the ground.
Almost as impressive, Willis finished the game with only one sack (a controversial call in which Willis lost his helmet and the play was blown dead) and zero turnovers. After a three-game stretch in which Willis struggled with turnovers and sacks, the bowl game provided one final chance for Willis to play mistake free. He executed to perfection.
Although he has another year of eligibility, Willis has made clear his plans to leave college football and is expected to declare for the NFL draft. For players looking to enter the NFL draft, it is not uncommon for them to opt out of bowl games to train and not risk injury. The very fact that Willis chose to play in this bowl game demonstrated his commitment to the program.
“You don’t want to waste the opportunity. I mean we’re blessed with the opportunity to keep going out there and playing this sport,” Willis said. “A lot of people won’t play after today, so it’d be selfish, and it’d be rude to not go out there and play to the best of my ability for my guys.”
After the game, head coach Hugh Freeze said that he was proud of Willis’ performance in the contest and stated that he played the game “Malik Willis style.”
“[Willis was] making plays with his feet, making good throws (and) explosive plays, smiling on the sideline, giving credit to everybody else and (finishing) with great humility and leadership,” Freeze said. “He’ll be missed on the mountain for sure.”
One of Willis’ best throws of the night happened when he connected with senior D.J. Stubbs for a 54-yard touchdown pass, off his back foot. This provided Liberty with its first lead of the game, a lead that they never relinquished. Stubbs finished the game with 69 yards along with the score.
Wide Receiver Kevin Shaa, another senior on the team, provided a touchdown of his own late in the fourth quarter on the first pass from backup quarterback Jonathan Bennett. With the game put away and Willis resting on the sidelines, Bennett entered the game and sent a bomb to Shaa, who promptly took the ball 64 yards for six. Shaa finished with a team-high 94 receiving yards.
On the flip side of the ball, Liberty’s defensive seniors left everything on the field in their final game of their college careers. One such athlete was safety Skylar Thomas. Thomas provided what may have been the most electric play in the game when he batted EMU quarterback Ben Bryant’s pass before catching it and scoring a pick-6. This occurrence happened within a minute of Willis’ pass to Stubbs and increased Liberty’s lead to 13-3.
Thomas only played one season with the Flames after transferring from Washington State but stated that he appreciated the time he had as a Flame.
“First of all, I’m just thankful Coach Freeze gave me the opportunity and just all glory to God too.” Thomas said. “It’s my last college game and for me to be able to go out with that magnitude, it was really special.”
Senior linebacker Storey Jackson, another transfer (Prairie View A&M), led the team with nine total tackles and recorded 0.5 sacks. After an emotional two weeks for Jackson during which his mother died, Jackson’s performance served as a tribute to her life. Jackson’s efforts helped the Flames limit EMU to 379 total yards.
One final senior who played a pivotal role in the Flames’ victory, Rashaad Harding, another transfer (LA-Monroe), recorded eight total tackles, tied for second-most in the game.
As this senior class leaves the program in search of bigger and better things, Freeze and his staff will be left with the job of filling the hole left by those graduating. While December 18 marked Liberty football’s last game of the season, fans can still watch Willis in one more college game as he competes in the Reese’s Senior Bowl February 5, 2022. The game is in Mobile, Ala., at Hancock Whitney Stadium, the same venue at which the Flames just won the LendingTree Bowl.
Shields is the asst. sports editor. Follow him on Twitter