Oct 17, 2020; Syracuse, NY, USA;  Liberty Flames running back Peytton Pickett (25) runs for a touchdown in the second half during a game against Syracuse on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.  Mandatory Credit: Dennis Nett/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

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No. 22 Liberty aims to spoil Western Carolina’s opener

Liberty coach Hugh Freeze makes a simple request of his team before games.

“Let’s make them talk about us,” he said.

The then-25th-ranked Flames certainly did that last week with the biggest win in program history, a 38-35 decision at Virginia Tech that improved their record to 7-0 and validated their first Top 25 ranking since joining FBS prior to the 2018 season.

Now the task on Saturday, when they host FCS opponent Western Carolina at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va., is simple: Don’t get caught looking ahead to next week’s trip to North Carolina State.

After ascending to 22nd in this week’s rankings, Liberty has created a buzz around the program like never before. A good chunk of that is thanks to Freeze, who is again reminding folks that he’s not the dolt he was portrayed as in the movie “The Blind Side.”

Freeze might still be at Ole Miss, where he authored consecutive wins over Nick Saban’s Alabama in 2014-15, had he not run into off-field problems. A combination of recruiting violations and phone calls to an escort service led to his resignation in July 2017, forcing the Rebels to vacate 33 victories.

His controversial hiring by Flames athletic director Ian McCaw in December 2018 has paid off handsomely in the win-loss column. Freeze’s ability to run a game has rarely been questioned, and it was on display at Virginia Tech.

Liberty controlled the clock for 37:27, getting a marvelous performance from quarterback Malik Willis. He threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns while running for 108 yards and a score. The Flames normally run a high-tempo offense, but Freeze preferred to eat clock and keep the Hokies from mulching their smaller defensive line.

“I believed that if we took care of it, we had a plan to slow the game enough to have a chance to be in it,” he said.

Western Carolina might have to ape that strategy to give itself a chance in the first game of its two-part season. The Southern Conference school is playing three games in the next five weeks before it launches its eight-game conference schedule in late February. FCS programs will play their postseason in April and May.

The Catamounts were 3-9 last year and 2-6 in the SoCon under Mark Speir, who is entering his ninth year as the program’s head coach. The most famous name in the program might be defensive ends coach Clyde Simmons, a Western Carolina alum who bagged 121 1/2 sacks in a 15-year NFL career spent mostly with Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia and Arizona.

Western Carolina returns a whopping 17 starters, nine on offense and eight on defense. However, the Catamounts have a new quarterback, Will Jones, who threw for 443 yards in a backup role last year.

Speir said Nov. 2 looking ahead to the leadup to the opener, “We’re going to practice three times this week and they’ve got to be big-time, physical practices. Again, technique, fundamental practices, and then next week, it’s game week — and that’s fun to say.”

The schools have split six games in previous meetings. This is the first time they’ve faced off since 2008.

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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