ORLANDO, Fla. — Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze and defensive coordinator Scott Symons shared a recent flight to Chicago on a recruiting trip. It turned out to be a fruitful excursion to the Windy City, and not from a recruiting standpoint.
Symons put the finishing touches on his gameplan to stymie the Georgia Southern triple-option attack. Freeze saw the finalized scheme and gave his seal of approval before the plane touched down for the recruiting visit.
Symons’ plan to ground the Eagles’ offense worked nearly to perfection.
Georgia Southern was repeatedly forced into three-and-outs. Quarterback Shai Werts was harassed and continuously flattened into the Exploria Stadium turf. The Eagles’ methodical ground attack never found any traction.
And when Georgia Southern finally drove deep into Liberty territory three times in the second half, Symons’ unit answered the call each time.
It is the reason the Flames returned to Lynchburg late Saturday evening with the Cure Bowl trophy in hand.
The Flames built a big lead and relied on their defense to maintain the cushion down the stretch to claim a 23-16 victory over the Eagles before an announced crowd of 18,158 in the program’s first bowl appearance.
Liberty completed its first full-fledged season at the Football Bowl Subdivision level with an 8-5 record. The Flames also became the third team in the past 35 seasons to win a bowl game after not being a full FBS member the previous season, joining Appalachian State and Georgia Southern who both accomplished the feat in 2015.
“[Liberty did a] tremendous job of really shutting us down,” Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford said. “We weren’t able to put points up.
“They were very well-prepared and beat us.”
The defense made three big stands in the second half to force the Eagles (7-6) to settle for field goals. The first two drives came after Buckshot Calvert interceptions, and the third came when GSU had an opportunity to cut the deficit down to three points.
“They shut us down,” Werts said after being held to 57 rushing yards on 22 carries and throwing for 95 yards on 10-of-19 passing. “We ain’t really put up points how we were supposed to. They were flying to the football and that’s that. They wanted it more than us tonight.”
Liberty defensive ends Jessie Lemonier and TreShaun Clark terrorized Werts throughout the game. The duo combined for 16 tackles and three sacks and never allowed Werts to get going in the passing attack.
“We actually love adversity,” said Lemonier, who was named player of the game after posting eight tackles to go with two sacks.
The Eagles were held to 289 yards of offense, with 194 coming on the ground.
The Flames, in years past, struggled against option offenses. Army methodically wore down Liberty last season. Kennesaw State and Charleston Southern used the option attacks to frustrate the Flames.
But it was different Saturday night.
Liberty’s defense flew to the ball. The Eagles were held to minimal gains on most of their 46 attempts, and nine times they were forced to punt after three plays.
It was a Liberty defense that played with the same passion and energy that carried the Flames during the first half of the season when the offense was still finding its footing in Freeze’s scheme.
“We needed them to do that,” Freeze said. “ … “I just wasn’t sure [Georgia Southern] could drive the length of the field without explosive plays after I saw how we were fitting their run game in particular.
“Our kids played with such passion and played really, really sound.”
Liberty took a 23-7 lead on Antonio Gandy-Golden’s 14-yard touchdown reception, but the offense failed to find the end zone after taking the 16-point advantage.
The offense still generated 402 total yards and won the time of possession battle by more than 2 minutes against a GSU team that prides itself on controlling the tempo.
Liberty’s defense didn’t just play strong against the run; it came up with a key turnover that added to the first-half momentum.
JaVon Scruggs (Appomattox) corralled a leaping interception to end a second-quarter GSU drive that marked Werts’ first interception since Dec. 2, 2017, in the fourth quarter at Coastal Carolina.
Liberty answered with Alex Probert’s 46-yard field goal for a 16-7 halftime lead.
The Flames got on the board first when Buckshot Calvert found tight end Johnny Huntley wide open down the middle of the field for a 57-yard touchdown midway in the first quarter.
Liberty immediately responded following GSU’s lone touchdown — a 10-yard run by Wesley Kennedy — with a six-play drive that covered 75 yards in 91 seconds and finished with Joshua Mack’s 3-yard touchdown run for a 13-7 lead.
“[The coaching staff] gave us the blueprint and we just had to go out there and execute,” said Liberty linebacker Solomon Ajayi, who had a game-high nine tackles to go with three quarterback hurries.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.