LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Jessie Lemonier watched the Thursday night NFL game between the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams, and one play in particular stood out to the Liberty defensive end.
In the second quarter, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner never gave up on trying to strip the ball from Rams running back Todd Gurley, and the play resulted in a takeaway for the Seahawks.
Lemonier channeled that same type of instinct of going for the ball Saturday night at Aggie Memorial Stadium, and it allowed the Flames to secure their first road victory in more than one year.
The redshirt senior stripped New Mexico State quarterback Josh Adkins of the ball at the Liberty 6-yard line and true freshman nickelback Tayvion Land recovered with a little more than 3 minutes remaining. The Flames recorded two takeaways when the Aggies reached the red zone, highlighted by Lemonier’s forced fumble late, and then ran the final minutes off the clock to claim a 20-13 victory before an announced crowd of 23,140.
“I was just playing my normal read, just sticking in the cutbacks, and I saw the quarterback pull it,” Lemonier said after finishing with 11 tackles, one sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss. “I was just waiting for the opportunity and I saw all game he was running with the ball loose, like a loaf of bread, so I just got in there and tried to make a play.”
Land, who received his second start at nickelback with Ceneca Espinoza Jr. not travelling with the team because of disciplinary reasons, pounced on the loose ball for his first fumble recovery at the college level.
Linebacker Solomon Ajayi, who had nine tackles, made sure Land safely had the recovery on a play in which Adkins faked the handoff to the running back.
It was a similar play the Aggies (0-6) ran with success against the Flames (4-2). Adkins picked up 41 yards on nine carries, but also lost 17 yards on four sacks.
He threw for 265 yards on 20-of-30 passing.
“We were hitting our gaps. I saw [Adkins] pull it, so I just read out of it,” Ajayi said of the Aggies’ final offensive play. “Jessie made a great play and Tank just jumped on it. I was just there to cover him up and make sure he secured it. Jessie made a great play, great player and just made it happen.”
Six Liberty runs allowed the Flames to take the final 3 minutes off the clock for the program’s first road victory since Sept. 29, 2018, at New Mexico.
The game featured a combined 23 penalties for 240 yards, and the teams went a combined 7 for 23 on third down.
“I think it’s something that we can build on that gives our kids confidence in games to come,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “Most everybody on our schedule, it’s pretty equal and games can go either way. For our team to be able to look back on the road and say, ‘Hey, it’s a tie game, 6 minutes left and we’ve got the ball, we have confidence that we can get it done and get points on the board.’”
Joshua Mack led the Flames in rushing for the third time in four games with 113 yards on 16 carries, and Frankie Hickson added 72 yards on 15 attempts as Liberty finished with 161 rushing yards on 38 attempts.
Quarterback Buckshot Calvert, who threw a 2-yard touchdown to tight end Zac Foutz for a 10-0 halftime lead, completed 16 of 31 passes for 173 yards. He was sacked four times.
“I think Josh had a good game, so did Frankie, and Buckshot missed a couple of early throws, thought it rattled him, they confused him a little bit tonight,” Freeze said. “I probably didn’t have the best package for him. Like I said, they really force you into running the ball a lot, and I thought we were pretty efficient at doing that.”
Mack picked up all 75 yards on the Flames’ go-ahead scoring drive, a four-play sequence that took 87 seconds off the clock.
The redshirt junior picked up 17 yards on his first two carries and then gained 54 yards on a well-executed screen pass from Buckshot Calvert to the NMSU 4-yard line.
Mack scored on the next play for a 20-13 advantage.
“The message for the team going into this game was believe in yourselves and what the coaches see in us. I kind of took that upon myself,” Mack said. “They came down and scored, they did their thing, but I took it upon myself that we couldn’t go out like that.
“To be honest, that screen, I felt like I was running forever. I felt like I was running hard, but I felt like my feet wasn’t going anywhere to be honest. It was a great play call by the coach and it worked out well in our favor. Just thankful.”
Liberty recorded takeaways on NMSU’s first two drives — interceptions from JaVon Scruggs and Brandon Tillmon — and then waited until the final moments to snag the third and final takeaway to secure the second straight seven-point triumph over a program from the Land of Enchantment.
“It was really, really big,” Scruggs said of the turnovers. “Obviously we were in a dogfight, so every play mattered.”
The Aggies made five trips into the red zone Saturday night, and the Flames held them to Jason Huntley’s 12-yard third-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 13 and two Dylan Brown field goals in the third quarter.
The other two drives ended with Scruggs’ interception in the end zone that was returned 72 yards for a score, and the fateful lost fumble that sealed the Flames’ victory.
“It’s really just a mentality for us. Just knowing that, yeah, they might get some yards, they might get some cheap stuff, but when it comes to the drive, we don’t want to give up any points,” Ajayi said. “We want at worse want to give up a field goal. It’s just a mentality that we have as a defense: Just want to be hard-nosed, hard-bodied and shut them out when they get to the red zone.”