Frankie Hickson wasn’t going to be denied midway through the fourth quarter. Not in his final game at Williams Stadium donning Liberty’s red, white and blue. Not with the Flames inching closer and closer to bowl eligibility for the first time in program history. All that was going through his mind was leaving no doubt of the outcome.
The redshirt senior did just that. He broke through a pair of would-be New Mexico State defenders, planted his right foot into the turf and couldn’t contain his excitement as he jaunted into the end zone for the fourth time on a dreary Saturday afternoon.
Hickson kept the good times rolling on the sideline and the celebration continued into the locker room well after the Flames punctuated a 49-28 triumph over the Aggies.
The Flames, in their first full-fledged season as Football Bowl Subdivision members, improved to 7-5 and became bowl eligible for the first time in program history.
“I was just excited to be a part of this team,” Hickson said, “excited to defend and play with my teammates. … They’ve been my backbone for five years now.”
Hickson’s dynamic performance came as no surprise to first-year Flames coach Hugh Freeze, who spoke with the running back during Tuesday’s practice and told him that he “was going to ride him.”
The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Heritage High School product did not disappoint with career highs of 196 yards, four touchdowns and 29 carries.
“Boy, he ran like a senior should today that cares about this university and cares about the results of the game,” Freeze said.
Hickson was one of 17 seniors who were recognized before the game and have been instrumental in the program transitioning from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision to an independent program in college football’s top tier.
The Flames played their inaugural FBS season last year and became full-fledged members with the ability to become bowl eligible over the summer.
Freeze, when he was hired to replace the retiring Turner Gill in early December last year, stated his objective was to lead the program to its first bowl game.
The first step to being invited to play in a bowl game — becoming eligible — was achieved in front of an announced crowd of 18,674 that braved the elements to watch Hickson and Joshua Mack run roughshod over the Aggies (2-10).
The two combined to rush for 314 of the team’s season-high 317 yards and scored five times. Mack added 118 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries.
“I’m happy,” Mack said. “We’ve seen our progression in the run game each week and for us to come out and do that today, … that’s big time. We just put our trust in the good boys up front.”
Liberty relied on its run game against a New Mexico State defense that elected to prevent the Flames from beating them through the passing attack.
Flames quarterback Buckshot Calvert threw for a season-low 169 yards on 16-of-29 passing, and star wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden finished with a season-low 29 receiving yards.
“It was just one-on-one matchups. They just beat us at the line of scrimmage physically,” NMSU coach Doug Martin said. “They just blocked us, and we probably needed to bring more pressure but didn’t feel like we could hold up in the back end. They have good receivers and it’s hard when you get matched up one-on-one against them.”
The Flames led 20-14 at the half thanks to Kei’Trel Clark’s blocked field goal as time expired at the end of the second quarter, and they bullied the Aggies with 177 rushing yards over the final 30 minutes.
Mack picked up 86 of his 118 yards in the second half, while Hickson added a modest 88 after rushing for 108 yards in the opening half.
“I think we could have thrown for more, but the conditions weren’t ideal,” Freeze said. “ … There’s a lot of games I called a bunch of runs and we threw for a bunch of yards because that’s what the defense did. But [the Aggies] were pretty determined to play quarters defense. If they’re not going to add the guy to the box, we’re going to hand it off. I called the same game I’ve been calling really, and they just gave us more of the box count to hand it off.”
NMSU had some life in the third quarter when Josh Adkins connected with Robert Downs III on a 27-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 29-21, but the Flames responded with three consecutive touchdowns — one from Mack and two from Hickson — to seal the victory and bowl eligibility.
“Every single game that I’ve played since I’ve gotten here to Liberty, it’s just been whatever it takes, whatever the team needs,” Hickson said. “That was the gameplan for tonight, so I had to capitalize. I thank God for my offensive line and the gameplan that put me in a position to be so successful.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.