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Behind the play of Malik Willis, Liberty Outlasts FIU 36-34

FIU entered the game as an eight-point underdog, but pushed the Flames to the limit.

It’s been 280 days since the FIU Panther football team last took the field in a live game - the September 26th season-opener marks the latest start in program history.

For Butch Davis, the question of who will quarterback the team following the James Morgan era isn’t quite answered, but it at least looks less murky. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Liberty’s quarterback situation is in the capable hands of Malik Willis.

The 6-1, 215-pound redshirt junior accounted for 360 total yards, including 280 and two touchdowns as a passer in Liberty’s (1-0) 36-34 thrilling victory over the Panthers.

FIU (0-1, 0-0) made up for the lost time in more ways than one by opening the game with a feat that the program hadn’t done since Barack Obama entered his second term as president.

Flex Joseph had 255 kick return yards for FIU.

Miami native Lexington Joseph took the opening kickoff 100 yards for a score - the first since Richie Leonard’s 100-yard return in the 2012 Shula Bowl - bringing the socially-distanced home crowd to a hush. The score delayed the question of who would be the Panthers’ starting quarterback by about six minutes of actual time.

The question of would there be an improved FIU run defense this season would be put to the test by Liberty. Defensive coordinator Jeff Copp’s unit looked like a group that’s been seldom seen over the past two seasons, holding the Flames to 2.8 yards per carry on 16 attempts until the three-minute mark of the second quarter. Liberty would finish the game with 219 yards, but they came on 47 carries.

Willis used his legs to extend plays as a passer, showing off the skills that landed him at Auburn to start his career. Willis went 13-of-16 for 126 yards and an opening drive 24-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore receiver Noah Fritz, to tie the game at seven.

Malik Willis had an excellent day before leaving on the last drive with a leg injury.

Davis and offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky had been coy throughout the offseason regarding the quarterback competition to replace James Morgan. After today’s performance, FIU’s head coach wasn’t ready to name a starter, but he did say that he’s looking to narrow the competition.

“The intention going into the game was to play all three in the first half and give each two possessions,” said Davis. “If they were doing good from there, then we would give them a third possession. It’s our biggest question mark going into the season. I think we found out some things about each and in the bye week, we’ll look to narrow the position down to two.”

Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager took the first two drives, going 1-of-4 with an 11-yard completion on the second drive to Georgia transfer JJ Holloman. While the quarterbacks are still a work in progress, D’Vonte Price showed that he’s more than capable of shouldering the load as the featured running back. Price had six carries for 56 yards on the drive, including a 30-yard scamper to the endzone - his longest carry since 2018.

D’Vonte Price looks to be back to his 2018 form.

“When he came in here as a freshman, you saw flashes of his potential,” said Davis. “He’s a very good football player and he’s got as good of vision as all of the great running backs I’ve been around - he’s got it.”

Redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins took the ensuing two FIU drives, both of which were marred by two illegal formation penalties. The Sanford native finished the day 1-of-4 for five yards passing on his two drives but showed his dual-threat abilities in rushing for 35 yards.

On Liberty’s second drive of the game, Willis led the Flames on a 10-play, 57-yard drive that ended in a Peyton Pickett two-yard touchdown run. FIU would have the final drive of the half, but Davis felt comfortable taking his eight-point underdog Panthers into the half tied at 14 with the Flames.

"Given where we were on the field and the score, you don't want to risk a bad snap or turnover there," said Davis.

Hugh Freeze’s team opened the second half with a six-play, 66-yard drive, but the FIU defense held strong in the redzone, forcing an Alex Barbir 27-yard field goal to put Liberty ahead by three.

Redshirt freshman Stone Norton would make his debut, becoming the third Panther quarterback to appear in the game on the opening drive for FIU - and would go the duration of the contest. The highly-touted signal-caller from Nashville had a tough start to his collegiate debut, his first drive went three plays and negative 14 yards, including a delay of game penalty.

Following a Tommy Heatherly punt, Liberty receiver DJ Stubbs had a highlight-reel, one-handed 14-yard touchdown grab on a play that defensive back Rishard Dames couldn’t have played any better, giving a 10-point advantage.

Price, who rushed for a career-high 148 yards on the day gave FIU an answer on the next drive, running down the Liberty sideline for a 65-yard touchdown run that brought the score to 24-21 at the midway mark of the third quarter.

Willis would again lead Liberty down the field - and FIU would again come up with a redzone stop - being forced to throw the ball away while being pressured by Boise State transfer Tyson Maeva.

Barbir’s second field goal of the game extended the Flames’ lead to six.

However, Norton would settle in, leading the Panthers on a seven-play, 75-yard drive that saw receiver Bryce Singleton haul in a gorgeous throw from Norton to give FIU a 28-27 lead. He finished the day nine-of-13 for 120 yards with two touchdown passes.

Liberty responded the following drive by riding running back Joshua Mack. The redshirt senior had four carries for 52 yards and a two-yard score, giving the Flames the lead.

After a punt and a Liberty field goal to make the 36-28, Joseph nearly brought FIU within two on the kickoff, racing down the left sideline, only to be brought down by the final defender on special teams.

Norton made the most of the short field, connecting with true freshman Rivaldo Fairweather for 22 yards, redshirt freshman Nate Jefferson for six and then finding Price for a six-yard TD pass. On the two-point try, Norton used his legs to buy time and found Fairweather in the end zone - but the pass slipped between his hands.

Fairweather made an excellent grab, but dropped the two-point conversion.

Following the game, Davis emphasized that his team’s 15 penalties - some of which were questionable, made the difference in the game.

“Sure, we would have loved to have got the conversion at the end - but penalties killed us,” said Davis. “Some of those calls, it looked like they were doing the same thing and getting away with it, but what can you do.”

FIU would have one final chance following a Liberty punt, but Norton couldn’t hook-up with Holloman on a third-down miscommunication, followed by a fourth-down sack.

The Panthers have next week off before welcoming an 0-3 Middle Tennessee team to Miami on October 10th, while Liberty looks to start the year 3-0 against North Alabama next Saturday.