Liberty was bitten by the turnover bug frequently in its first foray into the Football Bowl Subdivision last season, a rarity for the program since Buckshot Calvert took over at quarterback midway through the 2016 season.
The Flames turned the ball over 24 times last season. Fifteen of those turnovers came during a five-game stretch late in the campaign. Those opponents combined to score 42 points off those miscues.
During training camp, new Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze and his offensive staff stressed the importance of protecting the football at all costs. Whether by having a running back cradle the ball as close to the body as possible, getting wide receivers to develop a knack for being more aware of defenders punching at the pigskin, or helping Calvert making the right reads, keeping hold of the ball was the focus.
Preventing turnovers is one of the Flames’ keys to success this entire season, but it is certainly heightened when No. 22 Syracuse visits for a 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Williams Stadium.
The Orange were tied with Ohio for the national lead with 31 turnovers gained last season.
“Obviously they’re really well-coached at going after the football,” Freeze said.
Eighteen of those takeaways came through interceptions (more than quadruple from their 2017 total of four), so the coaching staff has foucsed on decision-making with Calvert in preparation.
Calvert, who threw 15 interceptions in his first two seasons at Liberty, totaled 13 of his 18 interceptions during that late-season stretch against Idaho State, UMass, Virginia, Auburn and New Mexico State.
Orange sophomore safety Andre Cisco, a preseason All-American, picked off seven passes last season, and senior cornerback Chris Frederick returns as the team’s top cover corner after recording three of his five interceptions in 2018.
“We continue to put [Calvert] in situations that stress with him with respect to his decision making, but also keeps familiarity with consistency in what we’re doing,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kent Austin said. “We’re not adding too many wrinkles that are unfamiliar to him. That is a stat that we have to win in this game. We have to win the turnover ratio.”
Calvert did not thrown an interception in either of the last two season openers (at Baylor and against Old Dominion) in which he started.
He combined to go 69 of 96 passes for 792 yards and seven touchdowns in those outings, both victories.
“We’ve just got to come out and play our game,” Calvert said. “They’re big and physical, and they like to stop the run; they’re going to load up the box, so it all comes down to us being physical, having effort and coming out ready to play.
“It’s going to be a smash-mouth football game, so we’ve just got to be ready to hit them in the mouth first.”
Calvert is playing behind a veteran offensive line that features three returning starters (Tristan Schultz, Thomas Sargeant and Dontae Duff) and two others who played significant snaps (Sam Isaacson and Damian Bounds).
The Flames, who will face a pass rush that rivals what they saw against Auburn last year, allowed 21 sacks in 2018.
Syracuse returns eight players who combined for 34 sacks last season — the most returning team sacks in the FBS — with 10 each coming from highly touted defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman.
“We better be prepared. We understand the talent level those guys have, and they’re good up front,” Austin said. “We have to control the line of scrimmage and we need to do things to keep them off-balanced.”
Syracuse has posted a takeaway in 14 straight games — the fifth-longest streak in the FBS. Those turnovers are often the result of the pressure the defensive line creates at the point of attack.
Syracuse coach Dino Babers said earlier this week he was nervous and not sure what to expect from the Liberty offense with a new coaching staff. He said he and his staff have watched film from games at Ole Miss, Georgia Southern and Liberty to look at the personnel and what plays could potentially be called in the season opener.
“I think there’s some things in our gameplan that really attack where they’re vulnerable,” Flames co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Maurice Harris said. “We just have to make those plays that are there for us. I feel real confident about that, that we can move the football on these guys because of some of the things that they do defensively because of what we do offensively. I feel good about that.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.