Both Liberty coach Hugh Freeze and defensive coordinator Scott Symons spent plenty of time studying and digesting Buffalo’s game film from last weekend against Penn State. The matchup against the Nittany Lions gave the two a better gauge of the Bulls offense.
Sure, running backs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks delivered as advertised on the ground, but that wasn’t the primary focus of the film study. The two coaches were keyed in on redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Myers and wanted to see how the passing attack developed with under him center.
They left impressed with what Myers accomplished in a hostile environment.
“I think our pass defense will be tested for the first time,” Symons said of the Flames’ 6 p.m. contest Saturday against the Bulls at Williams Stadium.
The Flames (0-2) opened the season against Syracuse and Louisiana, teams that predominantly wanted to run the ball and go with the pass in favorable situations. The Bulls (1-1) bring more of a balanced attack, with Patterson and Marks controlling the run game (300 combined rushing yards through two weeks) and Myers being able to take his shots at any point during a drive.
Myers this season has completed 21 of 41 passes for 314 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He only attempted 10 passes in the Bulls’ season opener against Robert Morris, a Football Championship Subdivision team, which is why the Flames coaching staff wanted to focus on how he fared on the road against one of the nation’s premier programs.
The signal caller completed 16 of 31 passes for 245 yards, one touchdown and an interception against the Nittany Lions.
“I thought he played really good at times against Penn State, against a very talented defense. I think [Buffalo coach Lance Leipold] has done a great job — you can tell by how they’re calling the game — putting him in situations with establishing the run and then ball control passes,” Symons said.
“He can stretch the field vertically, as well. They’ve got their shots wrinkled in there. I think for us right now, first off, it starts with back to the basics and fundamentals of good defense and making sure we’re focusing on that before it gets crazy schematically. Let’s focus on getting better at us.”
Liberty has prevented teams from connecting on big passes down the field through the season’s first two weeks, often relegating most completions close to the line of scrimmage.
Liberty ranks 41st in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (181) and ranks midpack among the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in yards per completion (10.97) and yards per attempt (6.03).
Cornerback Bejour Wilson, who has recorded an interception in the end zone in each of the first two weeks, has credited tackling with limiting the type of explosive plays the Flames allowed regularly the past two seasons.
The exception came last week at Louisiana when Ja’Marcus Bradley caught a short pass, eluded several defenders and raced 58 yards for a touchdown.
“The little things count and when you don’t do the little things right, big plays happen,” Wilson said.
The Flames should be buoyed by the return of senior rover Elijah Benton to the lineup against the Bulls.
Benton missed last weekend’s game with concussion-like symptoms, which forced JaVon Scruggs to move from free safety to rover.
Symons has described Scruggs as the team’s best tackling high safety, and moving the Appomattox County High product back to his top position allows the team to be better suited to defend both the run and the pass.
Leipold said earlier this week on the Mid-American Conference coaches teleconference that he expects Liberty to have a gameplan similar to that of Penn State — bring pressure to make Myers as uncomfortable as possible in the pocket.
Symons said he wants to rotate the defensive ends more frequently against the Bulls to allow Jessie Lemonier and Austin Lewis to be fresher, especially on third downs.
“When we don’t have a lot of depth at D-end, our edge guys got tired, too,” Symons said. “When you take Jessie and he’s not full speed, he’s not as effective as a pass rusher in that situation, especially when you play so hard on first and second downs. I think it’s back to focusing on the basics for us.”
When Myers drops back to pass, he has two primary targets: wide receiver Antonio Nunn and tight end Zac Lefebvre.
Nunn returned to action last weekend against Penn State and caught five passes for 113 yards. His fellow receivers have a combined eight receptions for one touchdown.
“We’ve got a lot of new players playing out at the wide receiver spot and each and every game they’re going to learn and get better,” Leipold said, “and that’s going to help Matt develop.”
Lefebvre has four catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns, and both of his touchdown grabs came in the opener against Robert Morris.
“I do know they love to use their tight ends in the passing game,” Freeze said.
“It’s a tall challenge. I’m glad we have them at home.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.