Flames defense stuns Arkansas, enforcing dominance for 21-19 victory
Questions surrounding the quarterback position, an injury to its starting running back and the second-largest crowd to ever witness a Liberty football game were not enough to prevent the Liberty Flames from eking out a road victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Flames, ranked No. 23 in both the AP and Coaches polls, entered the week with many misgivings, particularly at quarterback. Redshirt-junior Johnathan Bennett didn’t practice much of the week with the flu, and Charlie Brewer continued to work his way back from a broken hand suffered Sept. 3.
All of the questions surrounding the position culminated in ESPN’s football power index giving the Razorbacks a 73% chance to claim victory.
Regardless, the Flames hit the road for perhaps their toughest challenge yet, facing a 5-3 Arkansas team from the SEC with a Homecoming crowd of 70,072 on hand, the second-largest crowd to ever watch a Liberty football game, just behind when Liberty traveled to Auburn in 2018.
Despite being sick for much of the week, Bennett got the nod at signal-caller for the fourth consecutive game.
The Flames won the opening coin toss and deferred to the second half, putting their No. 25 ranked defense on the field to face a potent Razorbacks offense, who entered the contest averaging nearly 34 points per game.
Liberty forced an Arkansas three-and-out on its opening drive, and both teams traded punts for the first seven possessions before points were scored late in the first quarter.
It was the Flames who found paydirt first, as Bennett connected with wide receiver Noah Frith on a 16-yard strike for a touchdown to put Liberty ahead 7-0.
Arkansas moved the ball a little bit on its next possession, but an incomplete pass on a fourth-down attempt from Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson gave Liberty the ball back near midfield.
The Flames took advantage of the field position, going 53 yards in just five plays, the last of which being a 20-yard dot from Bennett to wide receiver Demario Douglas to extend the Flames lead to 14-0.
The possession was bittersweet for the Flames, finding the endzone but losing its leading rusher Dae Dae Hunter to an apparent knee injury. Hunter hobbled off the field and did not return to the game.
“We are hopeful that it’s just an LCL (for Hunter), but we’re not really sure until we get the MRI,” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said postgame.
Both teams traded punts on its next two possessions before the Flames found a little luck defensively.
Arkansas was able to get its ground game going on the next drive, rushing for 50 yards in just three plays to get into scoring position at Liberty’s 26-yard line. Jefferson backed up to pass and threw a seemingly perfect strike in the endzone for a touchdown, but cornerback Daijahn Anthony snuck his hand in, pulling it in off the rebound for the highlight-reel interception to stall the Razorbacks momentum.
Bennett and the offense once again took advantage of the opportunity, moving the ball methodically for a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped off by Bennett finding wide receiver Treon Sibley for Bennett’s third touchdown pass of the first half.
Arkansas kicker Cam Little drilled a 50-yard field goal right at the end of the first half, but the Flames still shockingly held a 21-3 lead over the heavily-favored Razorbacks.
Liberty opened the second half with possession, and it looked as if the Razorbacks found some momentum defensively after forcing a nine-yard loss on the first play of the half. Bennett, however, remained cool, calm and collected as he fired a rocket to Douglas on 2nd-and-18 for a 42-yard gain to get into Arkansas territory.
The Flames continued to move the ball, but they were halted when running back Shedro Louis was stuffed in the backfield on a 4th-and-2 attempt from the 16-yard line.
Liberty’s defense continued to hold up, forcing another Arkansas punt, causing boos to reign down from a restless crowd as the Razorbacks offense continued to falter.
The Razorbacks forced a Liberty punt on their next possession, and Aidan Alves’ kick was blocked out of the back of the endzone for a safety, giving the Razorbacks some life and cutting the lead to 21-5.
Arkansas looked to have the momentum to get back into the game, but a combined sack of Jefferson from Durrell Johnson and Dre Butler on a 4th-and-12 gave the ball right back to Liberty.
The Flames offense couldn’t take advantage, however, going three-and-out and continuing to struggle with its ground game without Hunter.
The fourth quarter had begun with the Flames up by 16, and the situation continued to become increasingly urgent for the Razorbacks. Needing an answer, Jefferson threw his second interception of the day, this time to safety Robert “Rocket” Rahimi.
The turnover appeared to be a prime opportunity for the Flames to put the game away, but the offense got too aggressive, as Bennett gave it right back to the Razorbacks for an interception on the ensuing play.
The turnover ignited the restless crowd, and Arkansas responded, moving the ball 84 yards in 17 plays, finishing it off with the two-point conversion to make it a one-score game at 21-13. The Razorbacks were 3-3 on fourth-down attempts on the drive.
Liberty’s offense now needed a response, and despite running off some of the clock, Arkansas forced another punt, putting Jefferson and the offense back on the field for one more chance with less than four minutes to play.
Jefferson and the Razorbacks offense rose to the challenge, moving the ball 85 yards with ease, capped off by Jefferson lobbing it up and finding receiver Trey Knox for an eight-yard touchdown to make it 21-19 with just over a minute to go.
Now, all that stood in the way of one of the biggest wins in program history was a two-point conversion, and the defense stepped up, stopping Jefferson on the run just shy of the goal-line, all but clinching the upset victory for the Flames.
Arkansas went for the onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, but tight end Michael Bollinger fell on the ball, and the Flames went into victory formation to earn the thrilling upset win, stunning both Arkansas and the rest of college football.
“We are going to celebrate this one,” Freeze said. “(I’m) so thankful. Thankful for our administration, just really thankful for our kids.”
Liberty pulled off the upset despite being shut out for the second half, in large part due to its defensive line continuing its dominance regardless of the opponent. The Flames finished with four sacks and a whopping 14 tackles for loss in the victory.
The win was Liberty’s first ever triumph over an SEC opponent. The No. 23 Flames extend their winning streak to six games and improve to 8-1 on the season.
The Flames next challenge will once again come on the road as they take on UConn at 12 p.m. on Nov. 12. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
McCusker is the asst. sports editor. for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter