The Flames, 1-0 after a 32-13 win over Delaware State in its opener, are trying to build on a 9-5 season a year ago that ended in the FCS playoffs. And with at least a share of the Big South title in each of head coach Turner Gill’s three seasons, Liberty seems ready to test its mettle against the first Big 12 team it has ever played. Gill’s systems are some of the most utilized in football, with a pro set offense and a base 4-3 defensive look, meaning WVU won’t face nearly the atypical preparation it did for the opener. But what Liberty lacks in flashy play, it makes up for with solid fundamentals.
Those were – for the most part – on display in the 19-point romp over DSU in the first game. The now-15th rated Flames racked up 417 yards of offense, 229 on the ground behind backs Desmond Rice and D.J. Abnar, who combined for two scores and all but 10 rush yards. Quarterback Josh Woodrum, like Abnar an All-Big South selection last season, completed 19 of 32 passes in the opening victory for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
And then there’s the biggest skill position threat for the Flames in senior receiver Darrin Peterson, a preseason All-American pick who ranks fifth in school history in receptions (155) and receiving yards (2,347). The 6-2, 190-pound senior is also tied for second all-time in touchdowns with 22, which is the fifth-best mark in the Big South.
“The only negative was the penalties,” Gill said of the win. “We had over 100 yards, and that really set us back on a few opportunities. Defensively, we had penalties for two first downs that allowed them to continue drives.”
But other than the 110 yards on infractions, Liberty managed a crisp outing that led to an easy win. The defense allowed 269 yards, just 42 rushing, and a lone touchdown. The Flames got off the field on eight of 13 third downs on their way to a lopsided time of possession advantage – which still means something to Gill.
“I thought one of the good things was that our defense really played pretty good,” he said. “We had a few new guys in there at defensive line, linebacker. And the secondary held up well. … When (WVU head coach Dana) Holgorsen, I was a part of seeing them on offense, and I’ve faced spread and seen different things, so it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. But I think they have an edge in every area just because of their speed and experience. Absolutely, play error free, but for us it’s more about being able to make sure we don’t make mistakes if we are going to compete.”
“They’re typical of the no huddle, fast-paced offense, throw a lot of screens, throw the ball down the field, play action. They have a mobile quarterback who can run, and that makes it even more explosive. This guy has good speed and throws it well, too, a true duel threat.”
Liberty right end Chima Uzowihe could provide Gill some needed pocket pressure. Another preseason All-American and All-Big South pick, the senior’s 19.5 career sacks rank second in school history and second all-time in the conference. Uzowihe needs 1.5 sacks to pass Brian Johnson (20.5) for the Big South record and three to break the program record held by Aaron DeBerry at 22 from 2000-03. He will test left tackle Yodny Cajuste, a redshirt freshman in charge of protecting Skyler Howard’s blind side.
“It’s gonna be a hostile environment,” Gill said. “They have a lot of speed on both sides of the ball. Defensively, nine starters back, offensively there’s good groupings there. They do a lot of good things, so we hope to play a really good football game and be as close to error free as we can to have a chance to play well.”
Gill also noted WVU’s defensive scheme, saying that Liberty had to “get our offensive line and backs and receivers on target on everything because it is different. They have five guys who could be coming from any direction, and they have eight in the box all the time. You really have to play with your eyes here. It’s something unusual, be prepared and give it the best shot and be ready to go.”