No. 22 Liberty looks to remain unbeaten vs Western Carolina

Liberty looks to remain unbeaten and keep riding the momentum of its record-setting season.

One week after a last-second victory at Virginia Tech and jumping three spots to No. 22 in the Top 25, the Flames (7-0) take on a Western Carolina team playing its first game in a split season due to the coronavirus.

The Catamounts also are looking to end a long losing streak; they have never beaten a Bowl Subdivision-level team in 57 attempts. They will be playing the first of three fall games before taking a break and returning to play eight more in the spring.

Flames coach Hugh Freeze told his team to cherish the memory of the dramatic victory against the Hokies and their rise in the polls, but also that it’s time to move on and focus on Western Carolina.

“This one has the same value as last week’s in the win-loss column. There’s no difference. It doesn’t count any more or any less and we must prepare,” Freeze said he told his team in a meeting earlier this week.

The Flames, though, are on a roll and moved the ball against the Hokies, putting up the same gaudy offensive numbers they did against lesser competition. Virginia Tech had won as many games — four — as Liberty’s first six opponents combined, and the visitors still rolled up 466 yards, including 249 on the ground, and 29 first downs in the 38-35 victory.

Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said his team will view the game much like an NFL preseason game: he wants to win, but also wants to get many players playing time and work to refine things that best show the need for improvement in game action.

He also knows Liberty will present a significant challenge in this team’s season-opener.

“They’re going to move the ball, they’re going to score some points. Let’s make them earn it. That’s my biggest thing,” Speir said. “.. They’re going to be hard enough to beat (with) us playing at our very best, but if we give them a lot because our emotions get the better of us or we lose our composure and get caught up in the moment and the players, then this game will get ugly.”

Some other things to watch when Western Carolina visits Liberty:

SIZZLING WILLIS

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis’ last two games would have been a good month for many. In victories against Southern Miss (56-35) and the Hokies, he’s rushed for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns and thrown for 562 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He did lose two fumbles against the Hokies, but bounced back to lead the winning drive.

MOVIN’ ON UP

These programs have met six times previously, the last time in 2008, and each has won three times. But the Flames now compete at the Bowl Subdivision level, which has beaten the Catamounts of the Champion Subdivision in all 57 attempts in the program’s history. Liberty is also 15-5 in two years of FBS play under Freeze.

GRINDERS

The Flames have four players that have run for at least 100 yards in a game and rank 12th nationally with 254.6 yards per game, led by Willis with an average of 100.5 yards per game. Last week, they ran for 249 yards against the Hokies and limited Virginia Tech to a season-low 201 yards on the ground, 89 below their season average, which was second nationally.

NOT THEIR FIRST RODEO

The Catamounts were just 3-9 last season, but return 19 of 25 starters on a very young team, giving Speir hope for growth. He said this week that 51 of their 109 players are freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

OPENING JITTERS

Speir said among the advantages the Flames have is they’ve worked out their early-season mistakes and jitters, something his young team has not done. “Am I going to have to burn a timeout in the first half because we don’t have enough guys on punt team? Every coach has that fear in the first game,” he said. “It is very unique. Our thing is we want to go play hard, we want to play sound and we want to go have fun.”

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Follow Hank on Twitter: www,twitter.com/hankkurzjr

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