In a second straight road game against an ACC opponent, the game fell to kicker Alex Barbir’s right leg. Two weeks ago at Blacksburg, he had a 51-yard field goal with one second left. Tonight in Raleigh his 39-yard field goal attempt was blocked as Liberty lost 15-14.
This marks the # 21 Liberty’s first loss of the season and ends a 10-game winning streak since last season. It was the second longest active winning streak in the country, behind only Notre Dame. The Flames are down to 8-1 this season and 2-1 against opponents from the ACC this season, while the Wolfpack improve to 6-3.
Freedom quarterback Malik Willis stepped into the game, drawing a discussion over Darkhorse Heisman Trophy contenders after posting some jaw-dropping stats throughout the season. In the Flames’ first game under the lights this season, Willis had his worst performance as a starting quarterback. He ended the game completing just 13 of 32 passes for 172 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions after entering the game with a single interception all season. He added 44 rushing yards in 15 carries.
“This is by far the sportiest team we have played,” said Freeze. “They are in good health, they have recovered all their children, number one, this middle linebacker is a first round. He gave us fits all night long. I don’t know if we blocked it all night. They were very athletic in every position. The gaps on Malik closed extremely quickly. I thought we had done a few shooting games, were running the roads, and the ball was hanging in the air a lot. His fundamentals were a bit nervous, throwing his foot back a bit tonight. He didn’t really experience that kind of pressure. He is hurt. It hurts because I don’t feel like I’ve helped him enough, but, man, you go kicking with an ACC team which I think is one of the top 3 or 4 talented teams in this group and who had a chance to win it. I’m proud of them for that, but it stings.
The Flames took a 14-9 lead in the 4th quarter where Hugh Freeze and Liberty looked to lead the field, eat time and put points on the board to make it a two-point game. Liberty had the ball with over 9 minutes to go. With Willis and the Flames facing a 3rd and 8 from the team’s own 20-yard line, Willis’s pass to the left side of the field was skipped and intercepted by the NC State defenseman at 26.
The Liberty defense, which was on in the second half, were unable to keep the Wolfpack out of the end zone on the short court. NC State took the lead six games later, 15-14. Their conversion to two points failed.
When Liberty recovered the ball, Willis threw his third interception of the game on the second play of the drive. It was a double swing lane by running back Shedro Louis that was moved wide, and Willis ‘ball was thrown over Louis’ inside shoulder and it hung in the air.
“We’ll have to go study it and see,” Freeze said of Willis’ interceptions. “Kent (Austin) will be working very hard with him to see what happened tonight.”
The Flames defense was able to hold on once again, forcing a three out, and Willis and the attacker recovered the ball at their own 8-yard line with 4:12 to go. This time, Willis designed a Liberty workout to get the Flames within reach. First, he found Johnny Huntley to pick up 15 yards. Then CJ Daniels was found open for a 12-yard gain and another first down. The big game came when Willis found Noah Frith for a 27-yard gain to move the Flames to the NC State 26-yard line.
At this point Freeze and the Flames slowed him down and started playing for a basket. Three runs for five yards allowed Alex Barbir to score a 39-yard field goal where he would try to win a second game in three weeks with his right leg. This time his kick was blocked and NC State reportedly ran out of time to seal the victory.
“We talked about it on the helmets and felt it deserved that right,” Freeze said of the basket placement. “Obviously now maybe we should have been more aggressive, but we gave ourselves a chance to win there with him. I have to see the movie to see exactly, but the kick looked really low.
The first 28 minutes of the game didn’t go exactly to the Flames’ scenario, but the team managed to keep a game of one possession before the Flames scored a touchdown to tie the score at 7 on entering the locker room. . NC State made three trips to the red zone in the first half, but could only score on one of those possessions. The Wolfpack missed a basket in their first practice and threw an interception on their third red zone possession after losing 13 yards on a sloppy slam.
The Wolfpack were leading in total yards, 209-57, at that point in the game. Liberty took over following an interception by Cedric Stone with just over two minutes to go in the first half. Malik Willis, who had struggled a lot up to this point, devised a 10 plays, 84 yard practice that ended in a 12 yard touchdown pass from Willis to Noah Frith to tie the score at the end of the first half, giving the Flames all the momentum heading to the locker room.
“Something special is happening here at Liberty, in our football program,” Freeze said as he told his team in the locker room after the game. “We have a lot to play. I hurt for you, I hurt with you. We have a short week to get back on the field and try to get our ninth win, then go play against one of the top 25 teams to finish the regular season. There is still a lot to play. Our children understand, they will be ready. We just don’t like the feeling of losing a game that we felt we had a chance to win.
* photo courtesy of Liberty Athletics
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