Liberty learned a valuable lesson the hard way Saturday night against 22nd-ranked Syracuse: When you get into the red zone as the underdog, you need to score. Otherwise, the favorite will take advantage of the opening, whether it's a sliver or a wide margin.

Syracuse made sure it capitalized on the Flames’ early offensive misfortunes.

The Orange’s defense turned the corner, and the offense followed suit with a trio of rushing touchdowns to record a 24-0 victory before an announced crowd of 21,671, the third-largest crowd in Williams Stadium history.

“Those are the type of plays when we’re trying to now compete with some of these Power 5 schools, you have to come away with points there, and you can’t turn the ball over in the tight red zone,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “Unfortunately, that’s what we did early on.”

Freeze estimated the Flames (0-1) should have scored 10 points, or at the very least six, to take the lead after recording a pair of drives into the red zone on the team’s second and third offensive drives of the game.

Those drives featured explosive passing plays to senior wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden and tough between-the-tackles running with Peytton Pickett and Frankie Hickson.

But when the Flames reached the red zone, the vaunted Syracuse defense took control and delivered a series of plays that kept Liberty from seizing the lead — and, more importantly, momentum.

The Flames’ first chance at the Syracuse 20 ended with three plays losing 5 yards, and Alex Probert missed a 43-yard field goal attempt.

Liberty’s defense forced its second three-and-out, and the offense used a 56-yard catch-and-run from Gandy-Golden to reach the SU 5 on the ensuing drive. But two plays later, Joshua Mack fumbled at the 3-yard line in his Liberty debut to end the team’s best scoring opportunity.

“We shot ourselves in the foot,” said Gandy-Golden, who had 56 of his game-high 116 receiving yards on that one play.

Liberty (0-1) racked up 103 yards of offense in the first quarter, but failed to take advantage of its chances against the Orange defense that became more aggressive as the game continued.

The Flames were held to 7 yards in the second quarter, 35 yards in the third quarter, and then picked up 84 yards on their final two drives after the Orange took a 24-0 lead following Moe Neal’s 42-yard touchdown run with 12:35 remaining in the game.

Syracuse recorded a whopping eight sacks, including seven against Flames starting quarterback Buckshot Calvert, and the constant pressure forced Liberty into consistent third-and-long plays.

“We knew coming in that front was the toughest part of the defense. But you know, they got to us quick and some of that stuff is on me,” Calvert said after completing 20 of 39 passes for 234 yards and two interceptions.

The Flames hadn’t been shut out at Williams Stadium since Sept. 17, 2005 against Youngstown State. Liberty finished with minus-4 rushing yards, the fewest yards picked up on the ground since Coastal Carolina held Liberty to minus-23 yards in the 2016 season finale in Conway, South Carolina.

“The thing that was really exciting was that a lot of those eight sacks weren’t even pressures,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “Those are just three-man rushes and four-man rushes, somebody beating a guy and getting home.

“Do you know how hard it is to get a shutout? That’s big.”

The Liberty defense, which surrendered points and yards aplenty the past two seasons, held Syracuse to 53 yards of offense in the first quarter but wore down as the game progressed, and the offense struggled to maintain possession.

Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito, who initially struggled because of the pressure Liberty brought to chase him out of the pocket, completed 17 of 35 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

Most of his best completions were screen passes when the Flames brought six to seven on a blitz.

“I think early on we just brought a lot of pressure and we saw that he really didn’t handle pressure well in the past games that he played,” Flames redshirt senior safety Elijah Benton said after posting a game-high 13 tackles. “And then after that, when we started to bring pressure, that’s when they started going to the screen, and that’s how you combat the pressure and the blitzes.”

The screen game opened up the Syracuse running attack, which accounted for all three touchdowns Saturday.

Abdul Adams scored on a 2-yard run early in the second quarter to put the Cuse ahead 10-0, and Jarveon Howard capped the Orange’s first second-half drive with a 1-yard plunge.

The victory was secured on Moe Neal’s 42-yard scamper on a fourth-down play less than 3 minutes into the fourth quarter.

The Orange rushed for 108 of their 192 yards in the second half.

“I thought our defense just took a huge step forward from last year in the way they competed. They way that they played tonight, I thought their plan was really good,” Freeze said. “ … Outside of a few third downs, the screen game and a couple of penalties, I just thought they played really solid against a top-20 opponent, and really gave us a shot if we had anything offensively to be in the game.”

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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