No. 19 Liberty brings its storybook season to UConn

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Liberty has experienced many firsts during Hugh Freeze’s four years as coach: first bowl game, first win over a Power Five team, first national ranking and, most recently, first win over an SEC program.

While Freeze has savored the Flames’ 21-19 win at Arkansas, he understands the importance of staying in the moment and keeping a proper perspective heading into Saturday’s game at UConn.

“Obviously, it’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ world,” Freeze said. “We’ll have to fight and guard against coming off two huge, emotional wins over BYU and Arkansas. You better get your mind right and get back to work.”

With a couple more wins, No. 19 Liberty (8-1) could be firmly in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl. But fellow FBS independent UConn (5-5) is making strides of its own, with first-year coach Jim Mora ushering in one of the nation’s biggest turnarounds.

The Huskies, already with more wins this year than the past three seasons combined (4-32), are on the verge of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2015.

“We’re going to play a very, very hungry football team that’s extremely well-coached and believing right now that they can become bowl-eligible in Year One,” Freeze said.

Mora knows Liberty will pose a challenge, especially on defense. The Flames held Arkansas, the SEC’s second-best rushing team, to 3.42 yards per carry and forced two turnovers.

“They get after it,” Mora said. “They’re a really good group of defensive players.”

The Huskies are 0-2 against ranked teams this season, having lost to Michigan and NC State, but confidence is higher now.

“It’s definitely fun,” quarterback Zion Turner said of UConn’s recent play. “Every day in practice, we’re practicing to have more practices.”

QB SHUFFLE?

Liberty has started three different quarterbacks this season and Freeze has said that when transfer Charlie Brewer is ready to return from injury, he’d be the starter again. Well, Brewer is back, but Johnathan Bennett is 5-0 as the starter and has started the last four games, engineering a 41-14 blowout of BYU and last week’s victory at Arkansas.

“It’s going to be hard for me to not have J.B. as a part of this,” Freeze said. “Hopefully we’ll get Kaidon (Salter) back also, so we’ll be blessed to have all three. We’ll see how they perform in practice, and which one gives us the best chance to win.”

INJURY UPDATES

UConn may welcome back two big pieces in its passing game in Keelan Marion and Cam Ross. Both receivers practiced this week to varying degrees, according to Mora.

Marion, the team’s leading receiver last season, broke his collarbone in the opener against Utah State, then sprained his ankle in his first game back against Boston College two months later. Ross broke his right foot early last season, then broke his left one in August.

“(Ross) would be the guy that we’ll have to wait the longest to see,” Mora said. “I think he’ll be able to do some things.”

Meanwhile, Liberty may be without leading rusher Dae Dae Hunter, who injured his knee against Arkansas and was awaiting an MRI.

MANAGING THE WEATHER

Weather could be a factor, with forecasts calling for a 50% chance of rain Saturday morning and winds up to 15 mph, with a high temperature of 70. While conditions may be sloppy, Mora doesn’t seem concerned.

“It just doesn’t matter,” Mora said. “We’re going to both play on the same field. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

TOP OF THE HEAP

Liberty leads the nation in sacks per game (3.78) and tackles for loss per game (9.3) and ranks eighth with 20 turnovers gained. The Flames had a season-high 14 tackles for loss at Arkansas, including four sacks, and stuffed a potential game-tying, two-point try with 1:11 to play.

“We just wanted to make sure our guys were in the best position to have one-on-one matchups,” co-defensive coordinator Josh Aldridge said. “I mean, you saw a lot of movement and things like that. That’s what gave them problems.”

ROAD SWEET ROAD

Liberty has won three straight road games since losing at Wake Forest in September. The Flames’ 4-1 record away from home this season is their best as an FBS program.

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AP Sports Writer Henry Kurz contributed to this report.

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