A circle in the Liberty football locker room enclosed a small area designated for players to let loose and dance away in the moments after the Flames’ 17-10 victory Saturday night over New Mexico.
Wide receiver DJ Stubbs and defensive end TreShaun Clark were the first two into the circle as the music blared through the locker room.
The third entry was not a player, but defensive coordinator Scott Symons. His celebration garnered raucous approval from his unit, and there were plenty of reasons for him to rejoice in a performance that was seven months in the making.
“They answered the bell and they were ready to play, and they did their job,” Symons said. “That’s getting to the point where we’ve got 11 guys consistently doing their job, and that’s [what] I think I was most pleased with.”
Symons, one of the key new faces on Hugh Freeze’s coaching staff, inherited a defensive unit that was bludgeoned repeatedly the previous two seasons by opposing offenses. The Flames had their bright spots from time to time, but the unit gave up yards in chunks and surrendered points at times with ease.
“They were beat up bad by teams” last season, Freeze pointed out.
The signs of progress were evident before the announced crowd of 17,101 at Williams Stadium on Saturday night as the Flames (3-2) limited a team that came in averaging 36 points and 482 yards of offense per game to well below its season averages.
“I thought this was our most complete game by far,” Symons said of his endorsement of the Flames’ outing in which they held the dynamic Lobos offense in check and without a touchdown until a late score with less than a minute remaining. The score trimmed the Flames’ lead to seven points.
The retooled defense, littered with true freshmen being asked to play significant roles and veterans finding new purpose in their play, harassed New Mexico quarterback Tevaka Tuioti and limited the number of explosive runs running back Ahmari Davis was able to generate through the offensive line.
The Lobos (2-2) picked up a season-low 362 yards of total offense. Their 10 points were the fewest since last season’s finale, when they mustered three points against Wyoming.
“I didn’t think they could stop us,” New Mexico coach Bob Davie deadpanned.
Liberty’s red zone defense, which broke frequently through the first three weeks (eight scores allowed on 12 trips), came up with two big stops on the Lobos’ three trips, highlighted by Jimmy Faulks’ interception in the end zone that ended New Mexico’s only red-zone drive in the first half.
“I thought it was a big play in the game,” Symons said. “ … I thought it was a big-time play by Jimmy.”
Tuioti threw for a season-low 139 yards on 12-of-26 passing. He also threw two picks. Safety Elijah Benton recorded an interception to end the third quarter after the Lobos reached Liberty territory for the second straight drive.
The first drive ended with a punt after three plays netted 5 yards in Flames territory.
“That’s something they can build on and gain confidence in,” Freeze said. “We really need that going on the road; you’ve got to play great defense on the road. This is something I think we can build on defensively.”
The Liberty offense generated 466 yards of total offense, highlighted by quarterback Buckshot Calvert’s 306-yard, two-touchdown, no-interception performance. But the Flames went 2 for 4 on their red-zone trips.
“When you have almost 500 yards, you have to have more than 17 points, and I’m frustrated with myself, just frustrated that we didn’t put the game away,” Freeze said. “The game should have been put away.”
Calvert connected with Antonio Gandy-Golden on a 3-yard touchdown pass to end the first quarter for the go-ahead score, then found Jerome Jackson on a 2-yard touchdown pass on a play-action pass with 23 seconds remaining in the first half for a 14-3 advantage.
Calvert moved into second all-time in program history with 9,758 career passing yards.
The Lobos found the end zone with 43 seconds left in the game on Tuioti’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Molina. New Mexico’s first three trips into the red zone resulted in an interception and Tuioti being stopped inches shy of a first down at the LU 2-yard line.
“We want to tackle well and be assignment sound, and then we want to control the explosive plays, and then hold teams to field goals in the red zone,” Freeze said. “You don’t stop offenses very much in this day and time if the talent is somewhat equal, and so you want to really grind and be really good in that red zone and make it hard for people to get in the end zone.
“They did that to us tonight, and we did it to ourselves a couple times, but our defense obviously was very good when they needed to be.”