Sixty minutes for 60 more.
Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze uttered those words Saturday to break the palpable disappointment in the Flames’ locker room at Scott Stadium. The four-touchdown loss to Virginia particularly stung for the players, and Freeze wanted to shift the focus to a bigger picture.
The Flames still control their destiny in becoming bowl eligible, and the regular-season finale at home Saturday against New Mexico State serves as the final opportunity to pick up the elusive seventh victory for a chance to play in a bowl game for the first time in program history.
“We’ve got 60 that are on the schedule and we’ve got a shot if we win those 60 to have 60 more to play together,” Freeze said. “It should would be fun to do, especially for these seniors.”
Liberty is 6-5 and needs to defeat the Aggies to become bowl eligible in the program’s first season as a full-fledged member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Flames need to reach the seven-win mark because two victories have come against Football Championship Subdivision programs (Hampton and Maine), and only one triumph counts toward bowl eligibility.
Freeze laid out his goals for the program when he met with the media during his introductory press conference nearly one year ago, and the one at the top of the list was getting Liberty to its first bowl game.
When he reiterated the team’s primary objective following Saturday’s loss to UVa, the seniors understood the magnitude of what was in front of them and the need to quickly regain focus and prepare for the team’s second meeting against NMSU this season.
“This is the biggest game of the season,” senior quarterback Buckshot Calvert said. “ ... We’ve got to come out swinging and make big plays. Coach Freeze said it: Play 60 minutes for another 60 minutes. I think we’ve just got to have that mindset to play a whole 60 minutes, therefore we can reach our goal and play another 60 minutes after the regular season is over.”
Liberty is one of 14 teams that can become bowl eligible with a victory this weekend.
Seventy-two teams have reached bowl eligibility with six spots available in the 39-bowl game schedule.
The Aggies (2-9) enter the important matchup for Liberty as winners of two straight over Incarnate Word and Texas-El Paso.
The Flames opened as 14-point favorites and won the season’s previous meeting 20-13.
“If we don’t win, it’s my last game ever in the collegiate ranks,” redshirt senior running back Frankie Hickson said. “This game means a lot to the seniors, and it means a lot to all the other guys, too, for the seniors who have looked out for them and tried to make sure they are starting in the right direction. The game means a lot.”
Liberty has a secondary tie-in agreement with the Cure Bowl that will open the door to an invite for LU to the Dec. 21 game in Orlando, Florida, if the American Athletic and Sun Belt conferences can not fill their respective bowl slots.
Both conferences have enough bowl eligible teams to fill their slots (AAC with seven and Sun Belt with five), and if either Memphis or Cincinnati remains as the top Group of 5 team in the final College Football Playoff rankings, that would open the AAC’s slot for the Flames to go bowling.
“It’s definitely important to get another chance to play another football game,” redshirt senior rover Elijah Benton said.
“It really is bigger than me; it’s bigger than the seniors. It’s what a win would do for the program to make it to the first bowl game. It’s a legacy that will never be able to be erased. It’s the first time that we’ll be bowl eligible to make it to a bowl game. That’s really the biggest goal.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty athletics for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.