Hilltoppers look to rebound from season-opening loss when they host the Flames
For any FCS school making the transition to the FBS, the road is usually a difficult one. However, Liberty has played well in their first couple of years in the FBS, going 8-5 last season in head coach Hugh Freeze's debut.
The Flames will kick off their 2020 season this weekend on the road against the WKU Hilltoppers from Conference USA. Last week, the Hilltoppers lost their opener on the road to the Louisville Cardinals, falling 35-21. WKU will hope for a different result in their first home game of the season.
Saturday's meeting is just the third between these two teams with the previous ones coming when both were Division I-AA (now FCS) members. Liberty holds a 2-0 edge but those victories came back way back in 1995 and '96. To put that into perspective, WKU head coach Tyson Helton was a freshman quarterback at Houston in 1996.
Liberty at WKU
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: WKU -14
When Liberty Has the Ball
Liberty will be facing a veteran WKU team that returns 26 seniors and 50 upperclassmen. Flames head coach Hugh Freeze announced on Monday that Auburn transfer Malik Willis would get the start against the Hilltoppers while also stating that the quarterback competition is still ongoing.
"We feel very good about (Willis) and Chris (Ferguson), and even (Johnathan Bennett)," Freeze said, according to the Liberty Champion. "We just felt like Malik will maybe give us a little extra something when plays don't quite go the way we want with his legs. So, he is going to get the start Saturday."
Willis was part of a three-person quarterback race at Auburn, along with Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood, for the starting job in the spring of 2019. But once the competition was narrowed to Nix and Gatewood, Willis decided to transfer to Liberty. He had to sit out the 2019 season due to NCAA rules after his waiver for immediate eligibility was denied.
In total, Liberty has just five starters returning on offense. One of the major questions will be at wide receiver with Antonio Gandy-Golden now playing in the NFL for the Washington Football Team. DJ Stubbs is the leading returning target after recording 32 catches for 401 yards and three touchdowns in 2019, but the depth is lacking after that.
At running back, senior Joshua Mack is back after leading the team with 792 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. He averaged a healthy 5.8 yards per carry but that will be put to the test against a WKU defense that finished 34th nationally against the run last season and returns nine starters. Among them is reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Malone and two other starters along the defensive line. Mack and Willis will have to do their part to try and move the ball on the ground against the Hilltoppers.
When WKU has the Ball
Hilltoppers quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome a graduate transfer from Maryland made his first start against Louisville. But he struggled as a passer, completing 10 of his 23 attempts for 129 yards with a touchdown.
Pigrome also provides a running threat for WKU's offense, as he chipped in 68 yards on 17 carries in the loss to the Cardinals. With Pigrome and Gaej Walker, the Hilltoppers have some options to attack teams on the ground with. Walker was second in Conference USA last season with 1,208 rushing yards. He was limited to just 19 yards on nine carries by Louisville but should find more room to run against a Liberty defense that gave up 190 rushing yards per game last season.
WKU had a difficult time against a high-powered Louisville offense but managed to keep the game from becoming a total blowout. Liberty won't just roll over, but the Flames won't post near the same challenge either.
The Hilltoppers' two-headed rushing attack of Pigrome and Walker should be tough for Liberty's inexperienced defense to contain. And while Willis has plenty of talent, this is a veteran WKU defense that finished 34th or better nationally in all four major categories last season. It's a lot to ask Willis in his first start for Liberty to orchestrate an upset over a team that won nine games a season ago and has already one under its belt this fall.
Prediction: WKU 37, Liberty 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo by Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics)