Three yards. That trivial distance proved to be the amount of separation between the undefeated Liberty Flames and the winless Sam Houston Bearkats in a thrilling Thursday night finish.
Liberty (5-0, 2-0 CUSA) escaped Sam Houston (0-5, 0-2 CUSA), 21-16 on its home turf in Lynchburg to remain unbeaten in CUSA play. But the disparity between the teams with inverse records couldn’t have been closer as the Flames required three consecutive stops near the goal line to stave off the massive upset.
Sam Houston launched its final drive with 3:36 remaining, taking over from its own 1-yard line after a spectacular punt by Liberty. But Bearkats quarterback Keegan Shoemaker escaped the unfavorable field position with a series of quick completions. He methodically maneuvered down the field with nine completions on the possession, assisted by a pass interference on Liberty cornerback Kobe Singleton to gain entrance into the end zone.
But upon reaching the goal line with under 20 seconds remaining, Singleton and the Flames defensive backs took the game with active hands. With zero timeouts remaining, Sam Houston wasted first down with a spike. On second down, Shoemaker nearly threw an interception to Singleton, who had Al’vonte Woodard blanketed on a fade route. On third down, Shoemaker targeted wide receiver Noah Smith short of the end zone, and the Bearkats were fortunate he dropped it due to the clock situation. Then on the all important fourth down, Sam Houston attempted a fade to the left corner of the end zone, but Singleton recorded yet another pass breakup to secure the Flames’ fifth consecutive win.
Sam Houston’s final drive was one of three opportunities the Bearkats were granted trailing 21-16 in the fourth quarter. Liberty’s offense moved the ball well in the period, but consecutive field goals misses by Nick Brown from 35 and 39 yards out kept the door ajar for the heavy underdogs. Sam Houston responded to both missed field goals with punts in its own territory — a testament to how stellar Liberty’s defense was all evening.
Liberty trailed 10-7 at the conclusion of the first quarter, but the Flames took control of the game through explosive playmaking. They averaged 23.7 yards per completion, led by wide receiver CJ Daniels who racked up 157 yards on five catches — securing four receptions greater than 20 yards. Quarterback Kaidon Salter finished the night with 257 passing yards and 38 in the rushing department, while running back Quinton Cooley added 106 rushing yards in his third century performance of the season.
Sam Houston entered the contest ranked last in the country in first downs per game, but the Bearkats moved the sticks reasonably well, registering 19 first downs at Liberty. Shoemaker fired for 255 yards and two touchdowns in the defeat and added a team-high 52 yards as a runner. But the Bearkats also ranked last in rushing average heading into Thursday night, and the run game continued to struggle. Outside of the quarterback, no ball carrier finished with more than eight yards, allowing Liberty to produce routine stops.
But one equalizer in this game the Flames hadn’t experienced much this season is an even turnover battle. Liberty ranked first in the FBS with three takeaways per game, generating 10 interceptions and two fumble recoveries in its first four outings. It was the second time in five games the Flames didn’t record at least a +2 in turnover margin, but they still managed one critical interception in the second quarter when Sam Houston was as far as the 35-yard line.
Despite a scare, Liberty remains one of 22 undefeated teams in the FBS and the only one chasing perfection in the CUSA. The Flames hold on to an outside shot at the New Year’s Six, hoping to remain unblemished when they travel to Jacksonville State next Tuesday.
On the country, Sam Houston remains one of four winless teams in the FBS. The last two weeks, the Bearkats came excruciatingly close to Jacksonville State and Liberty (which combine for a 10-1 record), but they hope to turn these close calls into victories. Looming on the schedule is a road trip to New Mexico State next Wednesday for the team’s third consecutive weeknight showdown.