Start Time: 4 p.m. EST, Nov. 20
Location: Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA
Weather: 49℉, winds N 5MPH
Records: Louisiana 9-1 (7-0 SBC), Liberty 7-3
Betting Line: Liberty -4.5/ O/U 53
TV: ESPNU (Kevin Brown, Hutson Mason), FuboTV
All-Time: Louisiana leads series 1-0 (35-14 in 2019)
This Ragin Cajuns team just knows how to win. 5 of their 9 wins so far this season have been by 10 or less points, with 4 of those being 5 or less. Now, after beating Troy in dominating fashion on their Homecoming, Louisiana will shift their focus to Lynchburg and the high powered offense that Hugh Freeze and Malik Willis have assembled for the Liberty Flames.
For the Cajuns, the game plan is rather simple: contain Willis on defense, get your offense moving early, and they should be fine.
Levi Lewis comes into this game completing 62% of his passes for 2,108 yards, 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions in his super senior season. He will have to be the catalyst for this offense along with Chris Smith (762 yds, 8 TDs) and Montrell Johnson (677 yds, 10 TDs). Louisiana will get the services of Emani Bailey (310 yds, 3 TDs) this week after missing several games with a knee injury.
Defensively, Louisiana needs to continue what it’s been able to do for most of the season: pound the line of scrimmage and contain the run. The Cajuns are only giving up 148 yards rushing per game to opponents, which is a respectable number considering the schedule. Patrick Toney has this group clicking at the right time, with two weeks to go before the Sun Belt Conference Championship game (12/4 2:30 pm CST ESPN).
Injury wise for Louisiana, the only major changes to the depth chart are Emani Bailey and Lorenzo McCaskill will both return this Saturday.
The Flames come into this game with a 7-3 record, with losses to Ole Miss, Syracuse, and ULM. Life as an independent has been good for Liberty, winning 15 straight at home and 25-9 under Hugh Freeze. Now, C-USA is on the horizon for the Flames, joining the revamped conference in 2023. To get more insight into Liberty, I sat down with Brett Jones, a Liberty graduate student and writer for ASeaOfRed.com, a Liberty fan site:
Matt: If you can, give a brief summary of how Hugh Freeze has managed to turn Louisiana into such a successful program.
Brett: Liberty wasn’t really a bad team before Hugh Freeze, but there were certainly areas lacking and many fans felt that the team had untapped potential. Freeze led the Flames to their first bowl game and bowl win in his first season. Freeze is an excellent recruiter, and he drew on his connections to assemble a coaching staff that has helped catapult the Flames to the G5 prominence. The guy just knows how to coach a football team, simple as that.
M: What are Liberty’s strengths?
B: Malik Willis is a team strength in himself. The Flames offense runs through him – he leads the team in rushing and passing this year. When he’s flushed out of the pocket (which is pretty often, unfortunately), he has an ability to improvise and make plays – turning near-certain losses into miraculous first downs. Another team strength is running back, but only when the corps is clicking. The unit has been very hit-or-miss this year. Lack of a potent rushing attack has hurt the team this year, but the running back room was also the reason the Flames hung around against Ole Miss last week. Aside from three games, the team’s defense has also been solid. The unit ranks 14th in the country this year in total defense.
M: What are the Flames’ weaknesses?
B: The biggest disappointment this year is the team’s offensive line. Liberty’s o-line was one of the team’s strengths last year, and the unit returned nearly every player – which is why it’s puzzling for this year’s line to struggle. The offensive line’s struggles have made it difficult for the Flames to find running room, which goes into another weakness: an inconsistent running game.
Liberty’s running back room has three very capable backs in Josh Mack, Shedro Louis, and former 4-star recruit TJ Green. At times, there are flashes of brilliance. The Flames actually ran all over Ole Miss last weekend. However, there are other games when the unit is ineffective. No Flames running back has rushed for 500 yards this year.
M: What does UL need to do to secure a win?
B: Louisiana needs to keep pressure on Malik Willis early and often – forcing him into risky throws that turn into interceptions. Willis will make plays, but minimizing those plays will be key to a Ragin’ Cajun win. UL also needs to make sure that the Flames rushing attack remains neutralized and unable to find room. If Louisiana can come up with timely sacks and keep Liberty behind the chains – which could very well happen – UL should win the game.
M: How will UL lose the game?
B: UL will lose the game if they can’t minimize big plays and get into the backfield consistently. Malik Willis is capable of erupting for a monster performance any week, and if he has another monster game against Louisiana, it will be tough for UL to hold on. I also think that Louisiana will struggle if the team cannot establish a running game. The Flames will be keyed in on Levi Lewis, and Liberty has seen Lewis before. Adding a rushing attack will make Louisiana’s offense that much harder to stop.
M: What matchup are you most excited to watch?
B: I’m really excited to watch Levi Lewis and Malik Willis battle it out. Both players obviously won’t be on the field at the same time, but everyone loves a dual between two great quarterbacks who are responsible for a great deal of their respective teams’ success.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
Liberty is a group that Louisiana should be very concerned with. Malik Willis is one of the top QBs in the entire country, and will be playing on Sundays very soon. Hugh Freeze is an offensive mastermind that wouldn’t be at Liberty if it wasn’t for some off-field issues in his time in Oxford. Liberty is not a better team than Louisiana in the trenches, but Willis knows how to get away and make the big play, so the Cajuns will have to do a good job of sticking to their defensive assignments and keeping Willis contained.
Overall, this is going to be the best G5 game of the weekend, with both teams looking poised for big bowl matchups. Louisiana needs this win to rise in national prominence before the conference title game, and I think they do just that. Lewis wins the battle of the Quarterbacks, as Louisiana comes home with a 38-31 victory in Lynchburg.