PROVO, Utah — The Liberty defense had its chances to get off the field on third down throughout Saturday evening’s matchup with BYU. The occasional stop was made, but the Cougars found ways to extend drives and ultimately turn those conversions into points.
Here is a glaring example: BYU faced a third-and-11 late in the fourth quarter clinging to a seven-point lead. Cougars quarterback Baylor Romney remained poised in the pocket and found Talon Shumway at the yard to gain for the conversion.
BYU’s seventh and final third-down conversion allowed the Cougars to run off the majority of the final 2 1/2 minutes off the clock. Liberty, still with life after stopping a fake field-goal attempt, was unable to capitalize and suffered a heartbreaking 31-24 loss before an announced crowd of 54,683 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“Are we disappointed that we couldn’t get off the field some on third down and give our offense a little more of a chance to score some more in the second half? Yes,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “There were a couple of possessions I wish I had over to call differently maybe, but just really proud of our kids. They fought for 60 minutes and stood toe-to-toe with a very good football team that’s beaten some really nice teams.”
The Flames (6-4) were given new life with 87 seconds remaining when BYU (5-4) attempted a fake field goal on fourth-and-2 from the LU 30 to retain possession and run the final seconds off the clock.
Flames safety JaVon Scruggs, who finished with a team- and career-high 2.5 tackles for a loss, read kicker Jake Oldroyd and knew a field-goal attempt was not coming.
“I actually read the kicker. He didn’t even approach to like kick the ball,” Scruggs said. “At that split second, I just knew that I had to go guard him because the ball’s going to come to him. Once I saw the holder [Hayden Livingston] just toss up the ball to him, I was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is my time to make this stop right here to get our offense back the momentum to go down the field and tie the game up.’”
Liberty had to go 66 yards to tie the game.
The Flames picked up 16 yards to midfield on Buckshot Calvert’s pass to Antonio Gandy-Golden, and Calvert had to spike the ball to stop the clock.
His next pass to Gandy-Golden fell incomplete, and then he dropped a pass off to running back Joshua Mack for a loss of 6 yards.
“I saw double-edge pressure off to the field, so I was thinking, ‘Get the ball out hot,’” Calvert said of the pass to Mack. “But I think if I kind of would have sat back a little bit, I think we had a guy running to the sideline deeper down the field. That’s something I’ve got to go on film and look at.”
Facing fourth-and-21 from the 39, Calvert looked to Gandy-Golden and the pass reached the reliable senior wide receiver, but the ball fell through his hands and to the grass to allow BYU the chance to seal the victory on offense.
“I just knew I had to catch the ball and I didn’t,” said Gandy-Golden, who finished with 10 catches for 162 yards and one touchdown. “That’s pretty much all that went into it. [BYU cornerback Isaiah Herron] had good defense coming towards the ball. I still should have caught it. He didn’t really make a play on the ball; he just hit me.”
Calvert completed 27 of 45 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
The heartbreaking loss came in the Flames’ first opportunity of becoming bowl eligible.
The defense, which came up with two takeaways in the third quarter, was unable to get off the field when it forced BYU into third-down situations.
BYU converted on its first four third-down chances, including a pair of longer conversions that helped extend drives that resulted in touchdowns to take a 17-7 halftime lead, and then improved to 7 for 12 on the Romney-to-Shumway conversion. (The Cougars were 7 of 13 on third down in the game.)
That particular third-down conversion had a familiar feel to one earlier in the fourth quarter when the Flames had momentum. The defense, for all the third-down conversions it surrendered, came up with two takeaways in the third quarter and the offense responded with a pair of scoring drives to cut the deficit to 24-17.
Romney found Shumway for an 8-yard gain on third-and-5 to extend a drive, and the Cougars capitalized when Romney took advantage of the Liberty secondary focusing on a receiver going in motion to find Moroni Laulu-Pututau open for a 17-yard touchdown and a 31-17 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
“The two that are really disappointing, we were in 2-man and we’ve got to coach it better. It’s as simple as that,” Freeze said. “We should be in trail technique underneath both of those throws and there’s no chance you should be able to throw an out route or a comeback when we’re in 2-man. We haven’t coached it well enough for our kids to execute it obviously in two critical situations. I like both of those calls; we just didn’t execute them.”
The Liberty defense had trouble getting off the field on third down two weekends ago at Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights went 12 for 17 in a 44-34 victory, but rebounded last weekend by forcing UMass to go 4 for 17 in a 63-21 triumph.
“Just watching more film. That’s basically all you can do,” Scruggs said of how to improve on third down. “You’ve just got to be able to dissect the play before it even happens. Just watching more film and locking in at practice a little bit more than what we already do, and hopefully that will get us back on track like we were in the first couple of weeks of the season.”
The Cougars, though, were unable to put away the Flames after going up two touchdowns.
Both teams exchanged empty possessions before the Flames used a pair of highlight-reel pass plays to cut the deficit to 31-24 with 6:35 remaining.
Gandy-Golden, who set the program record for most career receptions and hauled in a 41-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, hauled in a back-shoulder catch on the sideline to the BYU 13.
Gandy-Golden’s ninth reception of the game set up Zac Foutz’s acrobatic 13-yard touchdown reception in which he ran across the field and hauled in an over-the-shoulder catch while getting a knee down in the end zone.
Both of Foutz’s receptions went for touchdowns.
The Roanoke native, a redshirt senior tight end, caught a 19-yard touchdown to cap the Flames’ first drive for a 7-0 lead.
“It’s always good to see other guys get the ball," Gandy-Golden said. "It helps me out a lot and helps the other guys out a lot. We all know we can catch the ball, we all know we can make plays, so they can’t really cover one of us too heavily."
The Cougars responded after the Flames’ opening drive touchdown by scoring the next 17 points to take a 10-point halftime lead.
BYU wide receiver Micah Simon accounted for two of those touchdowns — the first on a 2-yard reception and the second on a double pass in which he found tight end Matt Bushman behind the secondary for a 44-yard pass — and had seven catches for 91 yards.