Get to know an opponent: Liberty

The Bulls look to bounce back against the Flames

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Following a tough 45-13 loss to Penn State, the Bulls will travel to Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, VA, to take on Liberty University on Saturday.

Last Saturday, the Bulls entered the half with a 10-7 lead over the Nittany Lions. Quarterback Matt Myers looked calm and collected, while the defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. The Bulls gave the Nittany Lions all they could handle for 30 minutes — until the wheels fell off and Penn State ran away with the victory. The Flames are much more of an even matchup for Buffalo.

Unlike the No. 15 Nittany Lions, the Flames are one of the Bulls’ most evenly matched opponents this year, dropping their first two games of the season in resounding fashion. The Flames made headlines this summer when they hired former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze.

The Bulls will be without punter Evan Finegan, who underwent surgery for a broken fibula and tibia on Sunday. Instead, they will turn to Jackson Baltar, a freshman from Orlando, Fl.

COACH: Hugh Freeze, 49-30, first season at Liberty

LOOKING BACK

In the final season of the Turner Gill era, the Flames’ up-tempo offense averaged 79 plays per game, with most touches going to either running back Frankie Hickson or wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden.

Quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert followed up on a record-setting campaign last season, throwing for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns — but also adding 18 interceptions. The Flames averaged 33.2 points per game in 2018, ranking in the top 35 nationally in total offense.

Gandy-Golden enjoyed a breakout campaign, connecting with Calvert on 10 touchdown passes. The senior wideout is projected to be a sixth-round pick in the upcoming draft, according to the Draft Network. He joined B.J. Farrow (40 receptions for 546 receiving yards) and D.J. Stubbs (50 receptions for 631 receiving yards) in rounding out the receiving corps.

Hickson was named the breakout athlete of the year at Liberty, after rushing for 1,032 yards and 11 scores on 229 carries. The Lynchburg, VA native anchored a rushing attack that ranked No. 75 in the nation, and also featured 400-plus-yard performances from Peytton Pickett and Kentory Matthews. The Flames had two offensive linemen named to Phil Steele’s 2018 All-Independent Team, Julio Lozano and Dontae Duff.

On defense, it was an entirely different story. Once the Flames started dealing with injuries on the front-seven, the unit started to falter. In 2018, Liberty ranked No. 118 nationally in total defense, faring only slightly better against the pass.

Defensive end Jessie Lemonier was the best player in that unit. He had 55 tackles, including 13.5 tackles-for-loss, to compliment a team-leading 10 sacks. He was joined at the line of scrimmage by Juwan Wells, an NFL Draft prospect who recorded eight tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks.

With injuries piling up, the Flames were forced to play defenders out of position, which was particularly tough on the linebackers. Overall, the defense was among the worst in college football last season, which was expected after the Flames made the leap from the lower-level FCS to the higher-level FBS.

LOOKING FORWARD

With Hugh Freeze looking on from off the field, the Flames dropped the first two games of the 2019 season. Freeze is recovering from a staph infection, which has forced him to watch his team from the press box. The Flames lost 24-0 to Syracuse in week one, and 35-14 to LA-Lafayette in week two, looking flat in both contests.

Calvert has thrown three interceptions to just one touchdown, while everyone outside of Gandy-Golden and Hickson has been relatively quiet. Still, the Flames are putting up a decent number of yards on offense — the hope for Freeze is that it soon translates into points.

On defense, the Flames brought in multiple junior college transfers to help Juwan Wells and linebacker Solomon Ajayi, the younger brother of NFL running back Jay Ajayi. However, over the first two games, it was still the Jessie Lemonier show — the redshirt senior has 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The opening game against then-No. 22 Syracuse saw an attendance of 21,671, which is the third-highest total in Williams Stadium’s history. The Bulls could be playing in front of a near-capacity crowd at the stadium on Saturday.

BOTTOM LINE

The Flames are in danger of finishing a season below the .500 mark for the first time since 2005, but they are still a worthy opponent for the Bulls, considering how much talent they have on both sides of the ball. However, compared to the No. 13 Nittany Lions, the Flames are much more evenly matched opponents. The Bulls should win this game, but the margin of victory will be a good indicator as to where they are at the rest of the season.

Sports desk can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com.

JUSTIN WEISS


Justin Weiss is an asst. sports editor at The Spectrum