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Examining ULM’s Upset Win Over Liberty

The Warhawks grabbed a massive victory despite being labeled as 32.5-point underdogs

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks beat the Liberty Flames 31-28 on Saturday despite facing a two-touchdown deficit at halftime. The Warhawks scored 28 points to Liberty’s zero in the third quarter and sealed the game with a 53-yard field goal and their third forced interception of the game within the final two minutes of the game.

It may have been an early indicator that ULM would pull off the upset as 32.5-point underdogs when it held Liberty to just four first downs on its first two drives. Both of those drives resulted in a turnover on downs after HC Hugh Freeze made the call to try and convert on fourth down from 10 and one yard short of the marker.

The first failed attempt came on ULM’s 32-yard line and resulted in a broken up seven-yard pass. The second, on fourth and goal from the Warhawks’ one-yard line, ended with a punch up the gut that gained no yards.

On that second drive of the game, Liberty started from Louisiana-Monroe’s two-yard line after a blocked ULM field goal was returned for over 70 yards.

It took another failed drive but the Flames finally opened the scoring with just 5:11 left in the half. Following a forced interceptio,n ULM needed just four plays to gain the 18 yards necessary to find the end zone. QB Malik Willis couldn’t find a target on a designed rollout so he did the leg work himself and scored on the ground from three yards out. That was the first of three touchdowns for Willis

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Liberty vs Coastal Carolina Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Willis was tabbed as a dark horse Heisman candidate going into this matchup after slicing other mid-majors like Middle Tennessee, Alabama-Birmingham, and Old Dominion. That talk will likely slow down, however, considering his game against ULM.

The Warhawks managed to keep Willis’ arm contained; he recorded a season-low 135 yards while completing a mere 57% of passes with a joint career-worst three picks. His legs, however, gained the Flames an additional 157 yards— Willis’ most since Week One 2020— and two touchdowns.

Following their touchdown, Liberty forced a Warhawks punt with only 1:25 in the half and marched 85 yards on eight plays. Willis found CJ Daniels for a touchdown to give the Flames a 14-point lead at the half.

The Warhawks came into the second half without a hint of letting up. They strung together their own long, but brief, drive that ended in a Chandler Rogers-to-Andrew Henry touchdown to halve the lead.

That score was Henry’s first career receiving touchdown, and only his second total touchdown.

Willis threw a quick pick just two plays into the ensuing Liberty drive that led to a short touchdown run from ULM’s Abraham Alce and in under a minute the Warhawks moved from two score down to a tie ball game.

After conceding the second touchdown, Liberty was again unable to move the ball. They faced a quick three and out and punted the ball away.

Libtery seemed incapable of giving up possession graciously. Of its nine drives that did not end in a score, the Flames punted only four times. As already mentioned they turned the ball over on downs twice and Willis was picked off thrice. Compare this to ULM; between a blocked field goal attempt and an interception the Warhawks turned the ball over just twice on their eight non-scoring possessions.

Following the Liberty pun,t Louisiana-Monroe benefitted from a Liberty pass interference and a Henry forty-yard breakaway for his now third career score. More time had milked compared to the last score, but now in under five minutes the Warhawks went from down 14 to up seven.

Liberty was again forced to punt after an eight yard sack by Ja’Cquez Williams, his first of the season, and with under five minutes left in the quarter the Warhawks proved they had a fourth touchdown for the period. A couple good gains and a roughing the passer set up Chandler for his second passing touchdown of the game, this time to Zach Rasmussen for 14 yards. That catch was Rasmussen’s only one of the game and his second of the season; both of his catches this year have been touchdowns.

The Flames took their next drive through the end of the third and marched together the best drive they’d seen all game. They, like Louisiana-Monroe, reached the end zone in a quick fashion despite the mediocre starting field position. Willis led a 65-yard drive that resulted in a Louis Sherdo touchdown rush from the seven to draw the Flames seven points shy.

The teams exchanged the ball via punts until Liberty got to take over on its own 40 thanks to a strong defensive showing and a good punt return and scored on a breakaway 53-yard rushing touchdown from Willis to draw the game even.

One more punt from each team granted the Warhawks the ball on their own seven with 4:15 left and the score knotted at 28.

ULM did not start the drive promisingly, but a clutch 33-yard third down reception by Will Derrick and an untimely roughing the passer call moved the Warhawks from their own red zone to the opposing side of a field.

Louisiana-Monroe took a rushing loss and then a sack to set up an unfortunate 3rd and 18 on the Liberty 48-yard line.

Following a Flames timeout, Chandler Rogers found twelve yards of grass to set up a 4th and six on the Liberty 36.

It is common practice in college football for the worse team to play for a regulation decision while the better team is more comfortable letting the game bleed into overtime.

The Warhawks entered the game as the clearly worse-on-paper team. They were 2-3, a good start considering they went 0-10 in 2020, are in the first season of a entirely new coaching staff and are without their starting transfer quarterback.

Liberty, however, came in as 32.5-point favorites after starting 5-1. Their schedule, while relatively easy compared to what it could have been, included ULM’s Sun Belt conference-mate Troy, which they beat 21-13. Its quarterback, Malik Willis, was having his name thrown around as potentially the first non-Power 5 Heisman since at least 1994.

So, that is exactly what first-year ULM HC Terry Bowden did: go for the win. Instead of forcing Liberty to try and score from 75+ yards out with not two minutes on the clock, he sent out kicker Calum Sutherland to attempt a 53-yard field goal. Up until this point, Sutherland’s career long was 49 yards. A miss would give Liberty the ball on their own 43 with 1:44 left. Based on their kicker’s career long, the Flames would have needed to gain just twenty yards to get into field goal— and thereby winning— range.

But hypothetical Liberty kick distanced did not matter. Sutherland, who played three games for Oklahoma in 2019 but did not play in 2020, set a new career long to give the Warhawks a 31-28 lead.

Liberty had little time and no timeouts but needed to gain at least 38 yards to have a chance at tying the game, but that kick will forever remain a what if. Willis was sacked and threw the game-sealing interception on the Flames’ only two plays of their last drive.

The Flames defense played amply enough to win a football game— they sacked the opposing QB six times and had 11 additional tackles for loss— but Willis’ interceptions and the offense’s overall inability to move the ball when in poor field position did not allow the strong defensive performance to shine.

No offensive player stood head and shoulders above the rest in this game, although the box score does point to ULM’s Andrew Henry as a crucial part of the offense. He led the Warhawks with 80 rushing yards, but half of those yard came from one play; excluding his 40-yard scamper he collected 40 yards on 14 carries for no touchdowns.

Now 3-3 overall and 1-2 in-conference Louisiana-Monroe hosts Sun Belt opponent 1-2 South Alabama on October 23rd at 7:00 pm. The USA Jaguars are 4-2 overall and 1-2 in-conference.

Liberty falls to 5-2, surpassing their loss total from 2020. The Flames next visit the 1-5 North Texas Mean Green on October 23rd at 4:00 pm.