Liberty vs. Syracuse

Liberty running back Peytton Pickett runs the ball down the field during the first half of the game against Syracuse on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at Williams Stadium.

Liberty’s offensive line has been the catalyst for success each of the past two seasons. The starting five have remained healthy and built a cohesion that translated to winning battles at the point of attack and allowing the Flames’ skill players to thrive.

That’s why the first two weeks of the 2019 season have been concerning for a unit that was expected to again be central in Liberty’s ability to thrive offensively. Quarterback Buckshot Calvert hasn’t been able to remain clean in the pocket, and the running game was stymied in the opening week.

“We know we haven’t played up to our potential yet. It’s just minor things that can be fixed, and the issue can be cured,” redshirt senior right guard Dontae Duff said earlier in the week. “We’re a close-knit unit, and when somebody messes up we get on each other, oftentimes before [position] coach [Sam] Gregg may have the opportunity to.

“We take it personal when the quarterback gets sacked in a game eight or nine times or we can’t get positive rushing yards. We take it upon ourselves and we’ll get it fixed, and I’m confident. We’ve had some down times before as a unit and we vowed to never go back to that, and that’s the plan.”

The Flames (0-2) got back on track in the running game this past weekend at Louisiana by picking up 142 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Sixty-six of those yards came on Frankie Hickson’s touchdown run midway through the second quarter that gave Liberty a 14-7 lead.

The running attack yielded minus-4 yards in the opener against Syracuse, and only one run went for more than 10 yards.

Last weekend’s performance was similar to how last season unfolded for the running attack. The Flames averaged more than 161 rushing yards per game last season, their most since the 2014 season in which Liberty advanced to the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“I think we have a chance to run the football. I think our O-line is good enough to do that against most defensive fronts that we play,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said earlier this week. “There will be some that are more challenging than others. [Buffalo] is a tough defensive front; they know what they’re doing, and they play very, very hard.”

The Bulls (1-1) pose a challenge with their three-man defensive front, which will be the first base defense with an odd front the Flames face this season. Syracuse and Louisiana utilized four-man base fronts.

Buffalo defensive coordinator Brian Borland is not hesitant to bring linebackers and safeties off the edge in blitz situations, which helps the pass rush. Chibueze Onwuka, Malcolm Koonce and Ledarius Mack each have recorded one sack. The Bulls have five sacks overall.

“One, we want to get the ball out quicker. I think that will definitely help our offensive line,” co-offensive coordinator Maurice Harris said. “Then, two, we did some things that are a little bit different from a protection standpoint that will be able to give us an advantage on Saturday.”

Calvert has been sacked 10 times. The offensive line allowed 14 sacks in 2016, 11 in 2017, and then surrendered 28 last season in the program’s first at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Calvert has taken responsibility for not making the right reads and holding onto the ball too long in certain situations, but there also have been instances in which the linemen were overmatched either off the edge or up the middle, and Calvert did not have adequate time to unleash a pass.

“We’ve got to do a good job as coaches getting them in a good position to make sure they’re successful,” Gregg said earlier this week. “We’ve got some technique stuff we’re working on and we’re fixing to work through, and we’re going to get better, and we’re definitely going to see a difference this Saturday. I think from a standpoint of coaching, we’ll get them in a good position to be successful.”

Freeze said earlier this season he was hesitant to keep the running back in to chip or the tight end to help on the edge, because that would take away options in the passing game.

Johnny Huntley had his first reception last weekend. It was the first catch for a tight end. Hickson has caught a pass in each game.

“There’s no panic on the team right now,” Duff said, “but there is a sense of urgency that we’ve got to fix those minor details and get it back going where we know we can play at the level we can play.”

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

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

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