The first five weeks of the Liberty football schedule was filled with familiarity.
Those teams, with the exception of Louisiana, ran offenses that featured a balanced mix of run and pass plays. Each scheme featured its nuances and tendencies, but the defensive principles of defending those offenses generally were rooted in the same philosophies.
Liberty’s next opponent, New Mexico State, employs the pass-happy Air Raid offense and will fling it around frequently at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
The winless Aggies haven’t had much success offensively this season, but the Liberty coaching staff calls NMSU “scary” heading into the 8 p.m. Saturday kickoff.
“I told our guys, I don’t think that we’re coming in favorites in my mind in this game,” Liberty defensive coordinator Scott Symons said. “They’ve played really good teams, and we’ve done what we needed to the last couple of weeks. They scored 52 on a defense that we’ve played [New Mexico].
“I think they’re pretty good. We’re going to have to be on point, or we’ll go down there and it could not go our way. I expect our kids to prepare the right way.”
The Aggies (0-5) have faced a daunting schedule to open the season. They lost their first two games by a combined score of 120-17 to Washington State and Alabama and have suffered setbacks in the past three contests to San Diego State, New Mexico and Fresno State.
“New Mexico State is a scary team to me,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “Their record may not reflect it, but look at the schedule they’ve played. It’s been pretty brutal for them.”
The offense, which Freeze said has shown improvement each week since a 62-10 loss at Alabama on Sept. 7, has scored more than 17 points only once this season in a 55-52 setback at New Mexico two weekends ago.
The Aggies rank among the bottom 30 nationally in several offensive categories (total, rushing, passing efficiency, scoring, red zone and third down), and a slew of turnovers haven’t helped matters.
NMSU ranks last in the nation in turnover margin with 14 turnovers compared to three takeaways.
“I expect them to play their best game of the season,” Freeze said after Thursday’s practice. “I think they’ve improved every game, and they played really well last week against Fresno. I don’t go into a game expecting it to be less than their best. Do I hope we get some of those [turnovers]? Yes, but I really do expect them to play their best game.”
NMSU’s offense revolves around redshirt sophomore quarterback Josh Adkins, who ranks second in the nation in pass attempts with 206 through five games. He has completed 129 passes for 1,210 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions.
He exploited the Liberty defense last season by throwing for 402 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions on 34-of-51 passing.
The Flames (3-2), winners of three straight, are hoping to have cornerbacks Bejour Wilson (foot sprain) and Emanuel Dabney (hamstring) available after both missed last week’s win over New Mexico.
If the two are unable to play, Liberty will have four healthy cornerbacks available against the Aggies after shifting Chris Megginson over from free safety prior to the New Mexico game.
“Obviously we’ve had our share of depth issues, so that’s another concern,” Freeze said. “This thing could be in the air 50, 60 times, and they’re scary running it, too, with the tailback [Jason Huntley] they have. It’s a new challenge, and you’re never quite sure how you’re going to play against that. We haven’t seen that this year, and it’s not the easiest to prepare for. I think we’ve done as good of a job as we can, and it’s time to go play.”
OJ Clark and Baylor transfer Tony Nicholson each average six catches per game. The two can test the Liberty defense, especially if Huntley is able to get involved in the offense either as a running threat or a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
“We know that they’re going to pull out crazy plays that we haven’t seen on film, anything that can just get them the momentum once they figure out if their base gameplan isn’t working,” Liberty free safety JaVon Scruggs said. “We have to make sure, from a defensive perspective, we just keep our eyes clean and our communication to the top notch.”
The early deficits have forced Adkins to drop back to pass frequently, and defenses have made sure the Aggies pay with 15 sacks through five games.
Liberty has totaled 11 sacks as a team.
“I think the focus level is going to the same for this game,” Liberty redshirt junior nose guard Ralfs Rusins said, “and that we’ll just go there and play our game.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.