Opponent Preview: Everything to know about Liberty

Courtesy of Liberty University Photography/ The Daily Orange

Last season, Liberty finished the season 10-1 and at No. 17 in the AP Top 25.

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Syracuse will enter its Friday night matchup with Liberty 2-1, after a blowout victory over Football Championship Subdivision team UAlbany. Last weekend, Liberty beat Old Dominion 45-17 and received 56 votes in the latest AP poll. Quarterback Malik Willis totaled six touchdowns and over 300 yards.

Liberty beat SU in the Carrier Dome last season 38-21. The Flames finished the season 10-1 and at No. 17 in the AP Top 25. Hugh Freeze, the former Ole Miss head coach, leads the team.

Here’s everything to know about Liberty ahead of its visit to Syracuse on Friday night:

All-time series

The series is tied 1-1.


Last time they played

Syracuse was coming off a home loss against Duke when it faced Liberty last October. The Orange had also lost quarterback Tommy DeVito to what would become a season-ending leg injury against the Blue Devils.

SU got out to a first-quarter lead behind a touchdown pass from Rex Culpepper to Taj Harris, but Willis and running back Shedro Louis both scored twice to give the Flames a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Willis finished last year’s matchup with 182 yards passing and 70 more on the ground. Head coach Dino Babers said the Orange have been watching film from last year to find ways to stop or limit Willis ahead of Friday’s game.

“He’s a quarterback that can throw the football. He throws a good deep ball; he throws a good short ball. But he runs so strong,” Babers said. “I’m not going to call him a running back because he’s not, but god, he does not run like a running quarterback. He’s very very strong, very very physical.”

Sean Tucker led SU offensively, rushing for 119 yards on 21 carries. The Maryland native scored five times last Saturday against UAlbany as part of the early-season success he has found in both the running and passing games.

The Liberty report

Freeze has built an offensive juggernaut around Willis, an Auburn transfer who played 15 games for the Tigers in 2017 and 2018. The Flames average nearly 40 points and 435 yards per game, utilizing an up-tempo offense that uses plenty of run-pass options (RPOs). Willis has 11 touchdowns through Liberty’s first three games, averages 6.6 yards per run and has a 71% completion percentage. He could likely be in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season and is a potential NFL draft pick.

Liberty’s other top weapons on the offensive side of the ball include wide receiver Demario Douglas, who leads the team with 185 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and running back Joshua Mack. Mack has run for 133 yards and a touchdown so far this year.

Defensively, Freeze’s team is led by senior linebacker Storey Jackson. Jackson has totaled 20 tackles this season and has 1.5 sacks. He has also played a role in the passing game, recording a pass break up and pass defended. Through the first three games, the Flames have allowed just six points in the second half.

Liberty is an independent team, and Syracuse is one of just two Power Five conference teams on its schedule this season. Last year, the Flames upset both the Orange and Virginia Tech on the road. To open the season, Liberty has faced Campbell (an FCS team), Troy and Old Dominion. The Flames outscored Campbell and ODU, combined 93-24, but escaped the road game against Troy with just a 21-13 win. Friday’s game will be one of Liberty’s toughest tests of the season.


How Syracuse beats Liberty

Babers emphasized the difficulty of having to stop Willis, and to have a chance at winning, Syracuse will have to at least contain him. Willis’ strengths come in his abilities to run and pass the ball effectively, and the Orange will have to attempt to take away one of those facets in the Carrier Dome.

SU’s defense has played well through its first three games and allowed just 17 points against a Rutgers offense that scored 61 points the week prior. Through three games, the SU defense has given up just 50 points, an average of 16.7 points per game that is fifth-best in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Babers also noted that the quarterback battle between DeVito and Garrett Shrader is still ongoing, but DeVito was once again listed as Syracuse’s starter this week. DeVito has started all three games so far, but Shrader has also appeared in relief in all three. To keep up with Liberty’s offense, SU will have to score points of its own. The Orange put up over 60 points against Albany but haven’t moved the ball effectively in the passing game against Ohio or Rutgers.

If Syracuse’s defense can hold Willis and his passing options and score early — something it was unable to do against the Scarlet Knights — the Orange could come out with a key nonconference win on Friday.

Stat to know: 71

Willis has one of the top completion percentages in the country at 71%, completing 49 of his 69 passes so far this season. He averages over 200 yards passing per game, and his passing efficiency rate of 179.12 is top 10 nationally.

Player to watch: Malik Willis, quarterback

Willis is one of the country’s top quarterbacks and will be one of the toughest players Babers and Syracuse face all season. Babers said it’s impossible for SU to replicate Willis in practice, but he hopes last year’s tape will show things that can help the Orange contain him.

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