LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Missed tackles have been Liberty’s Achilles' heel the past couple of seasons. It is a weakness that was addressed this past offseason with the addition of more players with the transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and those additions were designed to clean up that area of weakness.
The failure to successfully wrap up the opposing offensive players has reared its ugly head in the past two second halves of the Flames’ New Mexico swing.
New Mexico State took advantage of a plethora of missed tackles, quarterback Josh Adkins shredded the Liberty defense for 402 passing yards, and the Aggies edged the Flames 49-41 in an unexpected shootout Saturday night before an announced crowd of 8,337 at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
“We’ve got to make tackles,” Liberty coach Turner Gill said. “They made more plays than we did. Obviously that last run was a little more hurtful, just missed some tackles on that situation and that was tough.”
“That last run” was Christian Gibson’s 66-yard touchdown run with 9:44 remaining in the fourth quarter that gave the Aggies (2-4) a 49-35 lead. Gibson was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on a third-and-1 run, but he was able to bounce off the tacklers in the backfield before reversing the field to the left side and outrunning the LU defense.
More than half of Gibson’s 127 rushing yards came on that one play.
“We came out focused, but they just out-executed us in the second half,” Liberty senior cornerback Jeremy Peters said. “It’s something we have to work on every week, week in and week out, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll come back tomorrow, get back on this film and learn from our mistakes and get better next week.”
The Flames (2-3) had an opportunity to tie the game in the final minute. Quarterback Buckshot Calvert's pass to Fidel Ogbeifun down the right sideline was ruled incomplete, even after video review.
The officials looked to see if Ogbeifun had possession when his right foot and knee came down in bounds.
“Honestly I don’t think he made that play," Calvert said. "Even from the first throw whenever it just happened, you could kind of tell he was bobbling the ball. But he gives great effort every play, so you can’t just blame one guy."
Calvert was sacked on the next play, and his fourth-down attempt went incomplete to seal the Aggies' victory.
“I’m pleased with some of the things that occurred," Gill said. "Every game you can’t make these kind of mistakes that you make as far as tackling and some of things of that as far as turning the ball over and things of that nature. Again, I am proud of the effort. The guys played hard. That’s all I can ask for; sometimes it doesn’t work out. But our guys will rebound."
Gibson’s long touchdown run was a microcosm of the Flames’ two-week swing in New Mexico.
LU defeated New Mexico 52-43 last weekend despite surrendering 33 second-half points as the Lobos took advantage of missed tackles and blown assignments to cut a 32-point halftime deficit to six.
The Flames were able to make plays to preserve the victory last week, but were unable to consistently come up with stops during a 15-minute stretch Saturday night when the Aggies scored four touchdowns.
“We just didn’t do what we needed to do,” Peters said. “We focus on tackling, but tonight we just had a rough night trying to tackle. We’re definitely going to fix it and we’re going to get better.”
Adkins, a redshirt freshman, shined in his second career start. He threw for career highs of 402 yards and four touchdowns on 34-of-51 passing.
Adkins became the third quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards against Liberty during Gill’s tenure as coach. The other two were Old Dominion’s Taylor Heinicke on Oct. 5, 2013, and Indiana State’s Cade Sparks on Sept. 16, 2017.
Heinicke threw for 450 on 39-of-52 passing and Sparks finished with 405 yards on 22-of-36 passing. The Sycamores had 436 passing yards thanks to Jeremy Patterson’s 31-yard touchdown pass.
“They didn’t do anything different that we had seen on film. I don’t know how to even explain it,” Peters said. “We knew what they were going to do, but they did it.”
OJ Clark also set career highs with 10 catches and 145 yards. His 40-yard touchdown reception on a beautifully designed double move gave the Aggies a 42-28 lead.
Adkins’ scoring pass to Clark was one of three touchdown passes over a 10-minute stretch in the second half. He connected with Drew Dan on a 22-yard score to give NMSU the lead for good at 28-21, and he found Bryce Roberts over the middle for a 10-yard score less than four minutes later for a two-touchdown advantage.
Roberts’ touchdown came three plays after DeMarcus Owens came up with an interception on a pass to DJ Stubbs and returned it 52 yards to the LU 31.
Stubbs caught a career-high 11 passes that went for 115 yards.
“One-high safety. We knew once we got the one-high look, the seam should have been money,” Calvert said of the pass attempt to Stubbs. “I looked at him, I tried to give him an opportunity. I did feel like [Stubbs] was getting held a little bit, but you can’t rely on the refs to make those type of plays for you. The corner seen it, he reacted really good to the play coming over from the outside receiver to jump the slot guy. Great play by him.”
The interception was one of two plays Gill said impacted how the game unfolded.
Calvert was sacked by Shane Jackson midway through the first quarter and the hit jarred the ball loose. Roy Lopez recovered and NMSU needed five plays to capitalize on Gibson’s 1-yard plunge on third-and-goal.
“The biggest thing was two turnovers, the interception and the fumble,” Gill said. “I think if we don’t have those two plays, I think we have a greater chance to win the football game.”
Calvert completed 31 of 54 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns.
He connected with Antonio Gandy-Golden (115 receiving yards) on a 34-yard scoring strike late in the first half to give the Flames momentum heading into halftime, and he found Zac Foutz over the middle on an 11-yard scoring strike to cut the Flames’ deficit to 35-28.
Calvert also scored on a designed 5-yard run early in the third quarter and he had a 1-yard quarterback sneak early in the fourth quarter.
But Calvert also took a pounding in the pocket. He was sacked five times and hit even more, and NMSU’s sack total nearly matched the number of sacks allowed the Liberty offensive line in the first four weeks (six).
“We knew coming into the game their D-line, they were going to play a really good, physical brand of football,” Calvert said. “Hats off to their D-line because they did a really good job. The linebackers, they kept switching it up with all different types of blitzes, and you know, they got the best of us. As far as the sacks, they did a good job. We can’t have that many sacks, but we’ll get in the film room and we’ll prepare better.”
Liberty finished with 159 rushing yards and 155 of those came from Frankie Hickson.
Hickson set a career high in rushing yards and opened the scoring on a 22-yard run on the Flames’ opening drive.
The Heritage High product has rushed for 316 yards on 72 attempts in the past three games once his role in the offense expanded following Kentory Matthews’ right-knee injury late in the first quarter against North Texas.
“Honesty I’m one of those backs who gets better as the game goes on,” Hickson said. “Being able to see things pan out, maybe not necessarily the same way every time, but things can change and I can adapt.”