LIberty Flames Football Trounces Eastern Michigan; Wins Third Straight Bowl Game

Following a three-game skid, Liberty’s first drive looked much like the previous games, with a quick three-and-out to start things off. Then, the Flames ignited in Mobile.

Liberty’s brute force rushing attack and deep threat passing game could not be stopped. The Flames emerged as LendingTree Bowl victors, winning 56-20 and finishing their season 8-5.

Eastern Michigan came away with a field goal to open the scoring in Hancock Whitney Stadium, but Flames quarterback Malik Willis was quick to respond. Flexing his ability that has drawn considerable NFL scouting, Willis threw a perfect deep ball off his backfoot, finding DJ Stubbs for the score.

While Eastern Michigan looked to come firing back, Liberty safety Skylar Thomas prowled and pounced on the blitz, tipping a ball, intercepting and taking it back for a pick six. Kicker Brayden Beck hit the left upright on the PAT to keep the score 13-3.

Kicking was an issue for the Flames, with the team failing to convert three PATS, two hitting the uprights and one being muffed. Punter Aiden Alves held for three separate kickers on the night due to the kicking inconsistencies. Alves had a solid night punting, averaging 48.7 yards per kick.

Alves acknowledged it was the first time he had held for three kickers in a game, obviously being a bit perplexed at the scenario.

The Eagles were able to push down the field on the next drive with a mix of rushing and passing plays before running back Samson Evans burst through the 2-yard line to make the score 13-10.

Liberty kept on the forefront with two pass interference penalties putting the Flames into Eagles territory. Running back TJ Green took advantage, finding his way through the hole made by the O-line and jetting into the end zone. Green was aided by fellow receiver Noah Frith, who blocked EMU’s safety, allowing Green to score.

Blocking was a crucial point for the Flames. While Willis took plenty of sacks this year and the team struggled to establish the running game over the course of the season, the Flames’ offensive line played a stellar game. Willis was sacked once with that sack coming on a questionable “no-call” – his helmet was ripped off, but the refs deemed it to be of his own doing.

Head Coach Hugh Freeze was pleased with the offensive line’s performance in what was offensive line coach Sam Gregg’s last game for the team. Gregg is becoming the offensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi next season.

“I thought about as well as we have,” Freeze said when asked about the line’s performance compared to the rest of the season.  “They had two really good edge rushers, and I thought we fared fairly well.”

Johnny Huntley III notched 20 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Willis also was quick to praise his line, saying that they “won the game.”

Keeping their offensive momentum, Willis found Noah Frith for a deep shot. However, Frith was out of bounds, drawing a penalty. On third down, the defensive line jumped offside, and Willis took advantage with a bomb to CJ Daniels for 39-yards.

Down 26-10, the Eagles had to take risks. On a fourth down attempt, Hassan Beydoun caught quarterback Ben Bryant’s quick pass, but he ended up short of the first down, handing Liberty possession.

While Eastern Michigan did force a fourth down, Willis connected with Kevin Shaa to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Willis checked the ball down to tight end Johnny Huntley, who took it the rest of the distance to the end zone. 

With 2:12 to go in the half, Liberty took the opportunity to put the Eagles out of the game. Willis found tight end Travis Hobbs for 42 to put the Flames in the red zone. Shortly after, Willis took the QB-keeper, making a man miss before virtually walking into the end zone.

Liberty’s second quarter stat line was eye-popping: 209 total yards with 145 coming in the air. The Flames scored 20 points in the second quarter, elevating Liberty to a 33-10 lead at halftime.

Coming back after the break, the Flames stalled on their first possession, but the defense responded by forcing Eastern Michigan to punt.

Willis wowed the crowd with a sensational touchdown run – he made his way out of the pocket, dodging three defenders and creating separation from the entire secondary to score.

Later in the third, Willis zipped a pass into a tight window, finding Demario Douglas for the score to go up 49-10, the final of his Liberty career. Willis played one more drive before Johnathan Bennett came in to close out the game.

As the clock expired, Liberty players stormed the field in celebration of the 56-20 victory, marking three straight bowl wins in Liberty’s first three years of bowl eligibility – Appalachian St. being the only other team to ever do so.

Willis, who played his final game as a Liberty Flame, gave some final thoughts, noting that he gave it his all.

“You can’t go out there half-stepping,” Willis said. “If you’re going to play, you’ve got to play full speed… I’d be selfish and rude to not play to the best of my abilities.”

TJ Green, who ran for 88 and one score, noted that running was a big part of the Flames’ game plan.

“The running game was a key factor this week,” Green said. “When you’re able to run the ball, it makes the pass game easier, it makes the whole game easier, so the score showed that today.” 

Following the victory, Freeze commended his team and the fans.

“Bowl means something to us,” Freeze said to ESPN in the trophy presentation ceremony. “We take great pride in preparing our kids, and representing our university and our fans, and all our families and our wonderful band and cheerleaders, and everybody that travels with us, and our administration, so it means something to us. And I know it is to other teams too, but we seem to kind of have a knack to come together a little special for these weeks. I’m just really proud of our kids and coaching staff… this culture we have is one that we believe in, and we’re not perfect by any means, but I love these guys, and I love coaching them.”

Randle is the sports editor. Follow him on Twitter

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