Flames Football falls to Toledo 21-19 in Boca Raton Bowl
On a rainy Tuesday night in Boca Raton, Florida, the Liberty Flames football team failed to claim its fourth straight bowl game victory. In a slow and messy game, the Toledo Rockets defeated the Flames 21-19 in the Roofclaim.com Boca Raton Bowl Dec. 20.
All good things must come to an end, and the same goes for bowl games. After winning three straight bowl games in their first three years of eligibility, the Flames were trying to go for their fourth in as many years.
Sadly, after a disappointing end to the regular season riddled with drama, the Flames didn’t seem to have the same momentum going into previous bowl games. Coupled with a tough bowl game matchup with an interim head coach, without some key players due to injuries and the transfer portal, this wasn’t the best situation for the Flames to end the season.
Before the game, ESPN’s Doug Kezirian said to take the under, betting it would be a lower-scoring affair. Halfway through the game, he could not have looked more correct. By the end of the first half, the score was 7-3 Liberty. Some would describe it as a “defense-heavy” half, but that would give too much credit to the defenses of Liberty and Toledo. The sole touchdown came from a Shedro Louis run with just 3:50 left in the first quarter.
Immediately after the third quarter opened, it was clear that it would be a much different half than the first. The Rockets took the field and put together an incredible 13-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in their first touchdown of the evening.
Following that drive, the Flames hoped to answer, but their hopes were quickly dashed by a fumble from quarterback Kaidon Salter. The fumble was his fourth in as many games and something he addressed postgame.
“I’ve got to keep the ball high and tight at all times,” Salter said. “I was going to throw the ball out of bounds, but I made a bad read… tried to throw the ball out of bounds and got hit from behind.”
That fumble put the Rockets in an excellent position to score, which they did on a 29-yard field goal, making the score 13-7. The Flames’ defense forced Toledo to score three instead of a touchdown, mainly due to the play of defensive end Durrell Johnson. That became a theme for the Flames for the rest of the game — the offense would make a mistake, and the defense would do its best to try and recover from it. That wasn’t an easy task for the Flames’ short-handed defense, even more so when senior safety Javon Scruggs left with an ankle injury.
“Always tough when you lose him because, like I said before in press conferences this year, what he gives you isn’t just his ability to make plays. He helps everybody else around him get better,” Interim Head Coach Josh Aldridge said. “He’s not ‘the general’ just by nickname. He does a great job. He’s basically the quarterback of our defense.”
Another reason the Flames struggled defensively was the absence of their lead tackler this season, sophomore linebacker Ahmad Walker. In early December, Walker entered the transfer portal, and as of Dec. 14, he had committed to play for the SMU Mustangs. His ability to get downhill, make big hits and finish plays was sorely missed in this defense, which showed in the box score. Toledo ran for 173 yards against the Flames, 71 yards more than Liberty. The Rockets also possessed the ball for 40:03 and Liberty for the other 19:57. That is an incredibly wide margin —one that hurt the Flames in a big way.
“I think the difference in the game were the third downs down the stretch. We should have gotten off the field,” Aldridge said. “Would have loved to stop them obviously in that four-minute situation and give the ball back to our offense, but that’s how it goes.”
That four-minute situation Aldridge mentioned was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After going down 21-7, the Flames did their best to bring themselves back into the ball game, and they got pretty close. The Flames scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions, the first going to a wide-open Treon Sibley, a sophomore running back turned wide receiver. The second came from one of the most exciting plays the Flames have run all season. Salter took the drop and threw the ball to sophomore wide receiver CJ Daniels in what looked like a screen pass. Daniels then proceeded to launch the ball in perfect form to wide-open junior tight end Bentley Henshaw for the touchdown. Daniels 67-yard touchdown throw was the longest play for the Flames all night.
After a failed two-point conversion, the Rockets got the ball back and began to run the clock out with four minutes remaining. The Flames’ defense was unable to get any sort of stop, and the Rockets ran the clock down to zero, sealing the Flames’ defeat.
Though the Flames lost, the game wasn’t a loss all the way around. One Flame, in particular, took this game as an opportunity to etch his name in the Liberty record books. Johnson had another incredibly dominant performance with five tackles for loss (TFL), which was one more than the entire Toledo team had combined. Johnson went into the bowl game with 22.5 TFLs, and he now sits at 27.5 after the game, which sets a new single-season record for the Flames. The former holder of the record was Jason Wells, who set it at 25 back in 2000.
“I had goals for the season. I wanted a 10-win season, and I wanted us to stay ranked towards the end of the season,” Johnson said postgame. “But I guess that’s a good thing to write my name in the Liberty record books, and hopefully, someone will come along and beat it someday.”
With that loss, the Flames’ season comes to a rather disappointing end, but what does the future hold for this team? With so many players leaving in either the transfer portal, graduation or declaring for the NFL draft, as wide receiver Demario Douglas did the morning after the bowl game, it’s going to be a much different team next season.
There’s a new coach coming in, and what does that mean for the rest of the coaching staff? Is Salter the quarterback of the future? Questions and rumors will surround this team and will continue to do so until the players take the field next fall.
Can they keep up the successes of former Head Coach Hugh Freeze? Can they thrive in their new conference? Will this team ever be what it once was with quarterback Malik Willis at the helm?
Only time will tell.
Palsgrove is the Asst. Sports Editor at the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter @AaronPalsgrove