Cougars look for third straight win when they host bowl-seeking Flames
Both BYU and Liberty are looking to take one step closer to becoming bowl eligible when the two teams meet for the first time on Saturday.
The Cougars (4-4) enhanced their bowl prospects significantly with back-to-back upset victories over rivals Boise State and Utah State. BYU took down the Aggies 42-14 a week ago, earning their largest margin of victory in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel since 2006. On defense, the Cougars forced five turnovers. Offensively, they totaled 639 yards — the highest single-game amount for BYU since 2015 — and had season-highs in passing yards (418) and rushing yards (221).
The Flames (6-3) only need one more win to qualify for a bowl in their first season as a full FBS member. Liberty picked up its second road victory of the season after demolishing UMass 63-21 last weekend. The Flames set a single-game school record for total offense against the Minutemen, piling up 730 yards while averaging 9.5 yards per play. It was the first time Liberty ever surpassed 700 yards in a game.
This is the first game in a home-and-home series. BYU will play at Liberty in 2022.
Liberty at BYU
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: BYU -17.0
When Liberty Has the Ball
A quick-strike offense has opened the door for the Flames to regularly burn opposing defenses all season. Liberty is averaging 300.1 passing yards per game, which ranks 19th among FBS teams and is scoring 33.8 points per contest.
Much of that success can be attributed to the dynamic combo of quarterback Stephen Calvert and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. Calvert, who is nicknamed Buckshot, has thrown for 2,638 yards and 20 touchdowns through nine games. The senior ranks sixth among FBS players in total passing yardage this season. Gandy-Golden is a true NFL prospect and Calvert's top target. He is one of just two FBS players to already have 1,000 receiving yards at this point in the season. Gandy-Golden has totaled 1,082 yards and averages 20.0 yards per catch.
The Flames are much more effective throwing the ball versus running it. Still, they can be dangerous on the ground. Joshua Mack and Frankie Hickson have combined for more than 1,000 rushing yards between them. Mack has two 100-yard rushing games in his last four contests. Getting some backfield production will be key to keeping the pressure off of Calvert for long stretches.
When BYU Has the Ball
The injury bug has attacked BYU at quarterback non-stop this season. Jaren Hall suffered his second concussion in three games and did not play the entire second half against Utah State. Baylor Romney, the starter against Boise State, finished out the game even while dealing with a foot injury.
Both Hall and Romney fared well against the Aggies. Hall threw for 214 yards on 12-of-16 passing and also ran for 54 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries. Romney tallied 191 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-16 passing after halftime. Romney will likely make his second start on Saturday. Hall is still in concussion protocol and Zack Wilson has just begun practicing with the team again after fracturing a thumb against Toledo in September.
Romney shouldn't have any trouble moving the ball against Liberty. The Cougars have found a groove on offense over the past couple of games. Sione Finau has quietly emerged as BYU's top running back. Finau began the season as the fourth RB on the depth chart. In his last two games, he has totaled 161 rushing yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. The Cougars also have eight different receivers with at least 100 receiving yards. Tight end Matt Bushman is leading the way with 398 yards and three touchdowns on 28 catches. Bushman and Aleva Hifo — who also has 28 catches for 344 yards — figure to be primary targets against a Liberty linebacker unit that has struggled to slow down better offenses.
Liberty has a dangerous passing attack that will test BYU's defense from the opening snap. As good as the Flames are at moving the chains, they are mediocre on defense. BYU has looked like a completely different team since upsetting Boise State. The run defense has improved substantially and the offense is becoming better at finishing drives. Liberty's quest to secure bowl eligibility will wait another week.
Prediction: BYU 38, Liberty 20
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of @BYUfootball)