Liberty beats BYU in greatest win in Williams stadium history
On the morning of Oct. 22, Williams Stadium stood quiet — devoid of life.
Just hours later, it would become the site of history, as a record-setting crowd of 24,012 witnessed the fulfillment of a vision proclaimed by Dr. Jerry Falwell many decades ago.
What unfolded on the field was nothing short of magical, and the anticipation leading up to the matchup was unlike anything ever witnessed in Liberty football history.
“I just told (the team this week), ‘Point blank, this is the biggest game in school history,’” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said. “I told them at the hotel this morning, ‘I have no idea what the scoreboard will say at the end … I don’t even want you to look at the scoreboard. I want you to just immerse yourself in a fistfight for four quarters, and let’s see what it says.’”
The build-up to the main event, however, was nothing in comparison to what unfolded on the field as the Cougars and Flames faced off for the first time since 2019.
It was the Cougars who would take the field first, and their entrance was as swift as their exit as the Flames forced a quick three-and-out to open the game.
Quarterback Johnathan Bennett then made his way out for his fourth start of the season, hoping to extend his streak as the Flames’ starter to 4-0.
On just the third play of the drive, quarterback Charlie Brewer made a brief appearance, handing the ball off to running back Dae Dae Hunter for minimal gain. Brewer would take a total of three snaps on the drive — his only snaps of the day. Freeze later reported that Brewer’s hand injury was bothering him in pregame warmups, making it clear to the coach that Bennett was the one destined to lead his group into the fire.
The Flames’ first offensive drive ended in a 22-yard field goal from kicker Nick Brown, giving Liberty the 3-0 lead.
The Cougars offense found life on its next possession, opening the drive with an 18-yard pass to tight end Isaac Rex. It wouldn’t take long for BYU to power down the field with a pair of impressive rushes from wide receiver Puka Nacua and running back Christopher Brooks.
The Cougars would be the first to the end zone, as Jaren Hall floated a screen pass to Nacua, who dodged defenders and turned the play into a 46-yard touchdown. Nacua would end the day as BYU’s leading receiver with 144 yards, 92 of which came after the catch.
With BYU now holding a 7-3 edge, it was up to Bennett and the offense to muster a response. All that was generated, however, was an interception on the second play of the drive as Bennett’s pass ended up in the hands of safety Talan Alfrey.
Just two plays later, the Cougars would capitalize on Bennett’s error as Hall found Rex all alone in the end zone for the touchdown to extend their lead to 14-3.
The fans of Williams Stadium, whose excitement had been reduced to a simmer, fell quiet as if the Flames would be unable to contain this BYU offense. The players, however, never lacked confidence.
“Our sideline just never lost faith,” Bennett said. “I threw the pick, ran to the sideline and they were just like, ‘Bro, you’re good. We’ve got you.’ We just kept staying focused all night … they were behind me tonight, the whole team.”
The Flames would then put together a methodical 12-play drive capped by a one-yard touchdown rush from running back Shedro Louis to cut the deficit to four. Now, back in the fight, Liberty’s defense returned to the field and snuffed the Cougars attempt to drive down the field, forcing a punt.
With the chance to seize their second lead of the day, Freeze put the ball in the hands of his playmaker Dae Dae Hunter. Hunter touched the ball seven times on the 13-play drive, shedding tackles and fighting for extra yardage. Offensive line play was at its best, as Hunter consistently found lanes to plow through.
“This week, we took it into our hands to really know that we need to run the ball this game,” Hunter said. “The O-line did a fantastic job … it’s everything a running back could ask for.”
On the final play of the drive, Bennett scrambled to avoid pressure before finding tight end Austin Henderson in the left corner of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown.
The score was Henderson’s first in a Liberty uniform, and it proved vital as Liberty jumped ahead 17-14 with 5:06 remaining in the half.
The Cougars final attempt to find life before the half was thwarted by Liberty’s defense, as linebacker Tyren Dupree introduced himself to Jaren Hall on the first play of the drive and picked up the Flames’ 29th sack of the season.
Hall would later attempt a fourth down pass that fell incomplete, the first of BYU’s three failed fourth down conversions on the night.
A few rushing plays put Liberty in field goal range, and kicker Nick Brown capitalized with his second successful attempt of the night to give the Flames a 20-14 advantage as they entered the locker room.
Now, just 30 minutes of football away from the Flames’ most significant win in history, the mantra in the locker room was to hone the details.
“At halftime, we just talked about the little things we were messing up,” defensive tackle Kendy Charles said. “We didn’t really make any big adjustments. We just had to clean some things up on defense and protecting the perimeter.”
Set to receive the second-half kickoff, Liberty’s offense grabbed hold of the game and never let go. The Flames took nearly six minutes off the clock to open the half, marching down the field with a series of rushes to put them in scoring position.
Louis completed the energizing drive with a touchdown to the left side on fourth and one, extending the Flames lead to 27-14.
After an imposing defensive stop, the ball would be in Liberty’s court once again. This time, the Flames wouldn’t be on the field for long.
Bennett put the ball in Hunter’s hands on the first play, who shed a tackle to break loose up the right sideline. With just one man to beat, Hunter put Alfrey on the ground and didn’t look back for an 80-yard touchdown that caused Flames fans to erupt as their team seized control.
With a commanding 34-14 lead, the Flames defense would put the nail in the coffin with a pass breakup from cornerback Daijahn Anthony on fourth and 12 to force a turnover on downs. BYU was held to just 142 yards of offense in the final three quarters of the game.
BYU’s Jaren Hall was simply ineffective over the final three quarters, completing 11 of 27 passes. The Flames contained the dual-threat quarterback to merely 33 yards on the ground.
“We knew we had to keep him in the pocket because we know he can scramble around and make plays with his legs,” Charles said. “The whole week we had the mentality to play together. If we play together, we’re going to keep him in the pocket, and he can’t do anything.”
The final score of the night came from Liberty, as Bennett rolled right and threw a dart into double coverage to wide receiver CJ Daniels, who came down with the pass to stretch the lead to 41-14 with 10:40 remaining in regulation. The score put Flames fans in a frenzy, as they now knew history would be made in imposing fashion.
Liberty would run the clock out and solidify what was preached on the Mountain many years ago by the late Dr. Falwell as the Flames sent the Cougars out with a whimper.
As time ran down and BYU headed for the locker room, the field became a sea of red with the record-breaking crowd storming the field and players embracing one another with pride.
“We were just saying (to each other), ‘We won. We did it! We did what we talked about,’” Bennett said. “It was just great for the players to come together and execute the way Coach (Freeze) wanted us to.”
Bennett’s performance was nothing short of heroic. The fourth-year sophomore ended the night having completed 24 of 29 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns.
“I am so happy for (Bennett),” Freeze said. “I’m just so happy because he takes the brunt of a lot of our inconsistencies that we’ve had this year with our injuries. For him to raise his game tonight, (on) such an important night in the history of our program, that’s just so dang awesome.”
On the ground, Hunter had a monumental showing, totaling 213 yards and averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Hunter’s outing was the first time a Liberty running back eclipsed 200 yards since Rashad Jennings tallied 220 yards against Youngstown State in 2008.
“When (I passed 200 yards), I didn’t even look up,” Hunter said. “I didn’t even know I had 200 yards until you guys said something. We didn’t look at the scoreboard, we didn’t look at the stat sheet. We just balled our hardest and knew we’d have to fight to the end.”
The Flames can now enjoy a bye week to relish in the triumph and rest before taking on an SEC opponent in the Arkansas Razorbacks Nov. 4. This victory, however, will be one that is long cherished by the program and its leader, Hugh Freeze.
“To have the opportunity to come to a place that loves you for who you are, that gets to know you and judges you for who you are, good and bad, then gives you the reins to prove that you can have field stormings at a place like this, it makes my gratitude level pretty high,” Freeze said. “I’m just thankful.”
Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter