Flames six-game winning streak snapped after loss against UConn
Following perhaps the biggest win in program history, the Liberty Flames football team embarked on yet another road test, this time taking its No. 19 AP Poll ranking to Hartford, Connecticut, to take on an upstart UConn Huskies team.
The Flames, coming off a road win over the Arkansas Razorbacks of the SEC, entered this week’s road test without its two leading rushers in Dae Dae Hunter (injury) and Shedro Louis (personal reasons), as well as its leading tackler in linebacker Mike Smith Jr. (injury).
The good injury news for the Flames, however, came from the quarterback position as they entered the contest with all four quarterbacks healthy and active for the first time since Sept. 3.
Liberty turned to redshirt junior Johnathan Bennett to make the start at quarterback and put his 5-0 record as the starter on the line against the Huskies, who entered the matchup with more wins in 2022 (five) than the previous four seasons combined (four).
The Flames won the opening coin toss and deferred to the second half, putting its star-studded defense on the field first. Things got off to a less than ideal start for the Flames, with Huskies running back Robert Burns returning the opening kickoff all the way near midfield.
The Huskies offense responded to the optimal field position, moving the ball 51 yards in just eight plays, converting two third-downs on the way to an impressive opening drive and a 7-0 lead.
Bennett and the offense now found themselves in rare territory – a 7-0 deficit before touching the ball offensively. The Flames needed a response, and they got a partial one, moving 55 yards down the field in seven plays before a 33-yard field goal from kicker Nick Brown made it 7-3 Huskies.
The Flames defense did its job on the next possession, forcing a punt and giving the offense a chance to put more points on the board. It appeared as though the Flames were in prime position to do just that after picking up two first-downs, but Bennett took a hard hit and briefly exited the game.
Kaidon Salter, playing in his first game since undergoing groin surgery in early October, operated as the backup and took over while Bennett headed to the sideline. Salter entered the game on a 3rd-and-17, and he could sense the pressure from the Huskies after rolling to his right, fumbling the ball before it was recovered by UConn’s Jackson Mitchell and returned 31 yards for a touchdown.
Shockingly, the Flames, who entered the matchup with a 78% chance to win according to ESPN’s football power index, found themselves down 14-3 in the first quarter. The 11-point deficit was the largest the Flames faced since Sept. 18 against Wake Forest.
The Flames needed an answer on offense, but Bennett’s pass was intercepted by UConn’s Chris Shearin on just the fourth play of the ensuing drive, setting the Huskies up at midfield with a chance to extend their 11-point lead.
The Flames defense rose to the occasion, however, forcing a fumble, recovered by Durrell Johnson to put the offense right back on the field.
The offense wasted no time in finding the endzone, moving the ball 49 yards in just four plays, finished off by a perfect goal-line fade pass from Bennett to wide receiver CJ Yarbrough to cut the deficit to 14-10.
Both teams traded punts on their next two possessions, and Flames punter Aidan Alves booted the ball 45 yards to pin the Huskies at their own six yard-line.
Despite the nice teamwork, the Huskies offense still moved the ball a whopping 94 yards in eight plays, going nearly the length of the field to extend the lead to 21-10.
The Flames had no answer on their next offensive possession, starting at their own four yard-line because of a penalty on the ensuing kickoff. The offense went three-and-out, giving the ball back to the Huskies, who started their next drive inside Liberty territory.
The Huskies looked to add to their lead before the end of the half, but quarterback Zion Turner’s pass was intercepted by Ahmad Walker.
The offense now had just over two minutes left in the half to cut into the deficit, and it did precisely that, moving 47 yards in eight plays, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run from running back Malik Caper.
The Flames went into the intermission down 21-17, but they entered the break with some much-needed momentum.
That momentum appeared to have carried over into the second half, when Bennett and the offense took the opening drive 80 yards in seven plays with ease, finished off again by a one-yard touchdown run, this time from running back TJ Green.
After a brutal first quarter, the Flames now found themselves up 24-21 and looked to have seized control of the game, but the pesky Huskies team seeking to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2015 had other ideas.
A punt from the Huskies on their next possession and a 34-yard field goal from Brown on the next drive now gave the Flames a 27-21 lead, but the Huskies refused to bow out despite being heavy underdogs.
The Huskies moved the ball 75 yards in eight plays on the ensuing possession to retake the lead at 28-27 just after the fourth quarter began.
Mental mistakes plagued the Flames on the drive, with two personal foul calls on Johnson and Walker giving the Huskies first downs to extend the drive. The latter of which, a targeting penalty on Walker, also disqualified him from the contest and made him ineligible for the first half of next week’s matchup against Virginia Tech.
The Flames needed another answer from the offense to switch the momentum and quiet down the home crowd, and they did just that, as wide receiver Demario Douglas took the handoff from Bennett, shifting his way down the sidelines before turning on the jets for a 75-yard touchdown run to put Liberty back in front.
The Flames went for the two-point conversion in an effort to make it a seven-point lead, but Bennett’s pass fell incomplete. Still, Liberty now held a 33-28 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
The defense forced a UConn punt on its next possession, and it appeared as though the Flames could put the game away, but a risky fourth-down attempt from their own 45 yard-line came up short.
The Huskies offense took full advantage of the field position, going 41 yards in just six plays to jump back in front, and Turner fired a rocket to wide receiver Keelan Marion for the two-point conversion. UConn now held a 36-33 lead with under six minutes to play.
The situation started to become desperate for the Flames, who had no answer on offense, going three-and-out and punting the ball back to the Huskies.
UConn picked up a first down, but a 4th-and-2 attempt inside Liberty territory came up short, giving Bennett and the offense one more chance with just over two minutes to play.
The Flames picked up a couple first downs on the drive, but a tackle for loss and an incomplete pass gave Liberty a 4th-and-13 play from midfield, and Bennett’s last-chance throw fell incomplete, turning the ball over on downs and giving the Huskies the shocking upset win.
“They (UConn) played a solid football game,” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said postgame. “It’s frustrating, we didn’t play our best or coach our best. We win and lose together, but congratulations to them on becoming bowl eligible.”
A crowd of just over 15,000 on-hand stormed the field celebrating the Huskies being bowl eligible for the first time since 2015.
“We’ve come a long way in our program to have people get this excited and storm the field when they upset you,” Freeze said. “They deserve it, congratulations to them.”
The loss marks the first blemish for the Flames since a Sept. 18 road loss to Wake Forest, snapping their six-game win streak and making their record 8-2 on the season.
Liberty returns home for the final two games of the regular season, the next being a Nov. 19 matchup against the Virginia Tech Hokies at noon. The contest will be broadcast on ESPN+.
McCusker is the assistant sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter