No. 23 Liberty led from start to finish - but coughed up their chances to upset undefeated No. 12 Coastal Carolina in regulation. With under a minute left in the final quarter, Flames’ running back Joshua Mack was attempting to stay in the field of play and force Coastal Carolina to use their last remaining timeout when he fumbled on the Coastal one-yard line.
“We were trying to get the ball around the two or one-yard line and run out as much clock as possible because they didn’t have any timeouts and I had my two timeouts,” said Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze.
The Chanticleers corralled the loose ball - in the process preserving a 34-34 tie and send the game to overtime. Jamey Chadwell’s team trailed by two scores after the first quarter and by as many as 12 in the contest’s penultimate period, before Chanticleers quarterback Grayson McCall led a comeback. In the end, the late-game theatrics only delayed the Flames’ victory by two drives, as Liberty kicker Alex Barbir hit a 44-yard field goal to put his team ahead 37-34. On the ensuing drive, following three consecutive incompletions by McCall, Massimo Biscardi’s 44-yard attempt was blocked by defensive tackle Elijah James - giving the Flames a victory over their old FCS rivals.
“We tried to give the game away it seems like a couple of times, so when we saw the kick was blocked it was a feeling of elation knowing that we had won,” said Freeze. “That was the first time all season that we called a max block (on a field goal) and I think Elijah (James) got his hand on it and some guys got a great push up front to give us the victory.”
The victory gives Liberty their first 10-win season under Freeze and its first at the FBS level. Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was named game MVP, setting a Cure Bowl record with four total touchdowns. Overall, Willis went 19-of-29 for 220 yards with two interceptions through the air and had 21 carries for 137 yards and four scores on the ground. Here are our takeaways from the thrilling contest.
1. Malik Willis is worth the hype
After redshirting last season following his transfer from Auburn, Malik Willis took over for two-year starter Stephen Calvert as Liberty’s starter and lived up to the lofty expectations. His 34 total touchdowns set a program-record for total touchdowns at the FBS level and established himself as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Despite the two interceptions, Willis was effective enough as a passer and repeatedly picked up first-down conversions on the ground.
“We couldn’t get him down and he’s just that good, anytime we got close to him we couldn’t get him down and he was the difference in the ballgame tonight,” said Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell postgame.
Willis was appreciative of the opportunity to play a full season during a tumultuous season during the postgame.
“To be honest, I’m just grateful that we had a chance to play the whole season,” said Willis. “That’s first and foremost, but outside of that I’m always going to use my God-given abilities to move the sticks if the opportunity is there and help my team out.”
2. Grayson McCall has a bright future
After the opening two drives for Coastal Carolina, it looked as if the Chanticleers may be run out of the building - falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter. However, McCall rebounded to throw for 318 yards and three touchdowns while adding 96 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown on the ground. The redshirt freshman was named Sun Belt Player of the Year for 2020 and has a bright future ahead of him.
“It is a tough way to end the season, but especially ending it like this it’s really going to motivate us,” said McCall. “Now, we know what it takes to get to a bowl game and we know what it takes to beat a really good team like Liberty.”
3. Old rivals meet again
The two programs met for the 15th time in the Cure Bowl matchup - this being the first contest between the teams since Coastal’s move to the Sun Belt and Liberty joined the FBS independents. Saturday’s game saw both teams called for multiple unsportsmanlike penalties and referees had to get between players following plays throughout the game. Coastal Carolina defensive end Jeffrey Gunter was involved in a first-half entanglement that required referees to get involved and Coastal Carolina’s staff felt that several calls were missed during the game.
“I’ll comment on it now, I thought there were a bunch of missed calls during the game - obviously nothing that you can do about it now,” said Chadwell postgame.
4. Both programs are in great shape
Inevitably, the questions around how long both schools’ head coaches will remain at their current program will arise. However, in the meantime, Liberty and Coastal Carolina are in excellent shape with their respective coaches. The 43-year-old Chadwell led the Chanticleers from a three-win campaign in 2017, to his team being ranked as high as No. 9 in the Coaches Poll this season. While Freeze had his share of Power Five success at Ole Miss, he’s revitalized his career in Lynchburg and in the process has Liberty among the fastest rising programs in the nation.