BYU visits Liberty on Saturday in a showdown between FBS independents that are headed in seemingly opposite directions.
The Cougars (4-3) tumbled from the AP Top 25 poll after losing back-to-back games. A 52-35 loss to Arkansas last weekend represented a low point on defense. BYU allowed the Razorbacks to convert 12 of 15 third downs and score on eight consecutive drives. A late goal-line stand prevented that streak from reaching nine. The Cougars allowed 671 total yards and suddenly face an urgent need to make wholesale changes on that side of the ball.
The Flames (6-1) became bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season after holding off FCS Gardner-Webb for a 21-20 victory, their fourth in a row. Liberty snagged three interceptions, recorded five sacks, and tallied a season-high 13 tackles for a loss to extend its winning streak to four games. The Flames enter Saturday's contest leading the FBS with 18 takeaways. They also rank second nationally in sacks per game (4.0) and TFL per game (9.1).
BYU and Liberty met previously in 2019 — the first meeting between the two schools. The Cougars edged the Flames for a 31-24 victory.
BYU at Liberty
When BYU Has the Ball
Jaren Hall played like his old self against Arkansas. Hall racked up a career-high 356 yards and three touchdown passes while completing 63.4 percent of his attempts. It wasn't quite enough to overcome to relentless Arkansas offense, but his performance offered hope that Hall's shoulder is nearing full strength again after he got banged up against Utah State. Hall has tallied three 300-yard games this season and has thrown for at least 250 yards in six of his seven starts.
Running the ball should be a little easier for the Cougars this week now that Christopher Brooks has settled into a comfortable rhythm in the backfield. Brooks is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and had back-to-back 90-yard games against Utah State and Notre Dame. He only got 10 carries against Arkansas after the Cougars abandoned the run in the fourth quarter in a futile effort to keep pace with the Razorbacks' offense.
Puka Nacua accounted for three touchdowns against Arkansas and turned in one of his best games of the season, finishing with 161 all-purpose yards. Nacua is a proven running threat on jet sweeps and can stretch the field as a receiver. Kody Epps has emerged as another reliable deep threat in the passing game for the Cougars who could pose major problems for Liberty. Epps has racked up 311 yards and four touchdowns on 18 catches over his last three games.
When Liberty Has the Ball
Johnathan Bennett improved to 3-0 as a starting quarterback after throwing for a career-high 222 yards against Gardner-Webb. Bennett has tallied 692 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions in six games this season. Liberty has started three different quarterbacks this season because of injuries. Utah transfer Charlie Brewer won the job in fall camp but fractured his thumb in the season opener against Southern Miss. Brewer is close to returning and could end up seeing the field against BYU.
Dae Dae Hunter has emerged as a more consistent running threat for the Flames this season. Hunter went through a feast-or-famine cycle a year ago when he tallied three 100-yard games but had limited impact in his other games. This year, Hunter is rushing for 87.4 yards per game and had back-to-back 100-yard games against Akron and Old Dominion. He needs just 54 yards to reach 1,500 career rushing yards this weekend. Forty yards on the ground will give him a new single-season best.
Liberty is a tough defensive team when you look at the raw stats. But those stats are deceiving. The Flames have faced played four opponents who rank in the bottom 40 among FBS teams in total offense. BYU has some legitimate weapons at the skill positions that can give Liberty fits. The Cougars are a total mess on defense, but Liberty is a team more on their level compared to their previous two opponents. If BYU's defense turns out even an average performance, the Cougars will claim their second true road win of the season.
Prediction: BYU 31, Liberty 24
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
*Price as of publication.