Liberty University Football 01

Liberty linebacker Brandon Tillmon tackles Buffalo running back Kevin Marks during the Flames' win Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 at Williams Stadium. 

Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze pumped his fist in celebration the moment his injury-plagued defense secured yet another takeaway to seal Saturday’s victory over New Mexico State at Aggie Memorial Stadium.

The tempered sign of jubilation signified a fourth straight triumph for the Flames heading into a needed off week as the defensive unit suffered two more setbacks to key contributors against the Aggies.

Cornerback Jimmy Faulks played the opening series and linebacker Brandon Tillmon came up with an interception to close New Mexico State’s second drive. Neither played the rest of the game, becoming the latest starters to go down with injuries during the season’s opening six weeks. The laundry list of ailments has forced the Flames to play freshmen significant snaps, particularly against the Aggies.

“It couldn’t happen at a better time,” Freeze said of Liberty’s first of two off weeks this season. “We’re really beat up defensively. Offensively, we’ve got a few little nicks and stuff, but defensively we’re beat up and we need to get some kids healthy.”

The off week before the Flames (4-2) host FCS program Maine on Oct. 19 will allow the coaching staff to properly rest the injured players and get more practice snaps for the younger players who have been asked to step up early in the season.

“[The off week timing is] huge because everybody’s going through injuries, but it’s hard to play at a high level when people are out,” redshirt senior linebacker Solomon Ajayi said.

Tillmon’s injury comes at one of the Flames’ deeper positions. The linebacker corps features five players who have rotated frequently this season, and the group of Ajayi, Waylen Cozad, Tyren Dupree and Amarii Jenkins finished the game against the Aggies without issue.

Faulks’ setback is another taken by the secondary. The redshirt junior was the only cornerback who had started every game this season.

Bejour Wilson, who started the first three games opposite of Faulks, has missed the past three games after suffering a foot sprain in the fourth quarter against Buffalo on Sept. 14. The redshirt senior went through pregame warmups with the team for the second straight week at New Mexico State, but didn’t have the lateral movement needed to play consistently.

Emanuel Dabney, who missed one game with a hamstring injury, returned last week, only to leave after suffering cramps.

The Flames finished the game with two true freshmen (Kei’Trel Clark and Chris Megginson) and one redshirt freshman (Isaiah Avery) at cornerback.

“We’re playing them young kids back there and they’re just battling,” Freeze said.

The defensive line is still without two junior college transfers who were expected to contribute this season. William Green hasn’t played so far with a stress reaction in one of his feet, and Devonte Lloyd has missed two straight weeks with a bulging disc in his back.

No redshirting for these freshmen

This is the second season in which coaches have the ability to get players action in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility, and the rule was designed to give true freshmen opportunities to get acclimated to the speed of the college game before playing in four full seasons.

Five true freshmen have already eclipsed four games played, and another is on pace to join that list when the Flames return to action Oct. 19.

Megginson, Kei’Trel Clark, TreShaun Clark and Shedro Louis have appeared in all six games this season, and Micah Glaize has played in five straight after missing the opener against Syracuse.

Louis is the primary kick returner, while the other four have contributed significantly on defense.

“Our young guys are balling out,” Ajayi said. “The young guys are just stepping up and helping us.”

Tayvion Land has played in four straight games and started twice, and his play at nickelback will keep him on the field for the remainder of the season.

Linebacker Malik Caper traveled with the team to New Mexico State but did not play. He has appeared in two games so far.

Bowling?

The Flames, winners of four straight, are now in the conversation for a potential bowl game.

Liberty has a secondary tie-in agreement with the Cure Bowl, but because the Flames are now full-fledged members of the FBS, they can receive an invitation to any bowl if spots are available.

The latest bowl projections from CBS Sports and Sporting News each have Liberty receiving an at-large bid into the Birmingham Bowl against a team from the American Athletic Conference (CBS with UCF and Sporting News with SMU).

The Flames continue a favorable stretch after the open week. They host Maine in a game that will not count toward bowl eligibility (Liberty already owns a victory over FCS Hampton) before playing on the road against Rutgers (1-4) and UMass (1-5).

“We’re in control of our future, we’re in control of bowl eligibility, all that,” Ajayi said. “We’ve just got to keep fighting, go back, get healthy, fix all the mistakes and come out in the next game.”

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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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