Wake Forest Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman (10) gets ready to celebrate during the fourth quarter Friday, Dec. 31, 2021 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights faced each other in the 2021 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Wake Forest defeated Rutgers 38-10. [Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union]

No. 19 Wake Forest takes on confident Liberty

Sam Hartman is back and No. 19 Wake Forest aims for another victory on Saturday when it hosts Liberty in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hartman, the fifth-year quarterback for the Demon Deacons (2-0), missed the season opener after having surgery to remove a blood clot. He was cleared to return to play last week and threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-25 win over Vanderbilt.

“It was great having Sam back,” Deacs’ coach Dave Clawson said. “I thought he played really well. He had command of the offense and obviously was a big factor in why we won.”

With his scores through the air against Vanderbilt, Hartman became the active career leader in touchdown passes among Power 5 quarterbacks with 76, trailing only Jarret Doege of Troy’s 79 among FBS passers.

Hartman also needs just 197 passing yards to become Wake’s all-time leader.

Yet, Liberty (2-0) doesn’t seem to fear Hartman all that much.

“Every quarterback folds under pressure,” said Liberty senior defensive tackle Dennis Osagiede. “They have that (run-pass-option) thing where they hold it. And that’s cute and all, but at the end of the day, if you put pressure in a guy’s face, he’s going to make some type of indecisive throw.”

Liberty’s coaches offered a bit more respect for Hartman.

“He’s easily the best quarterback we’ve played since I’ve worked here,” Liberty co-defensive coordinator Josh Aldridge said. “He’s got a great arm and quick release. He’s seen every look you could possibly give him, but we’re going to give him our best shot.”

Indeed, Wake Forest is scoring 44.5 points per game. Last year — when the Deacs won 11 games and the Atlantic Division in the ACC — they averaged 41 points, fourth-best in FBS.

Liberty’s offense hasn’t been as potent, but the Flames defense appears to be the best Wake has faced so far. The Flames are 10th-best nationally in passing yards allowed (125.5 per game), and second in turnovers forced (4.5 per game).

Liberty is coming off a 21-14 home win over UAB and opened the season with a quadruple-overtime road win at Southern Miss — a game in which the Flames forced five turnovers.

“This defensive line and linebacker group will be the best we’ve faced this season,” Wake offensive lineman Sean Maginn said. “Obviously they have confidence with what they’ve said this week, and they should have confidence.”

Two of Liberty’s offensive playmakers — running back T.J. Green (lower body) and wide receiver CJ Daniels (ACL) — are recovering from injuries and are expected to return to action.

Under head coach Hugh Freeze, the Flames are 28-11, have won three consecutive bowl games and are 2-6 against Power 5 opponents. Liberty is playing in its final season as an independent and will join Conference USA next season.

Although the schools are just 150 miles apart, this is the just the third meeting all-time between the Flames and the Deacs, and the first since Liberty moved up to the FBS. Wake is 2-0 in the series.

–Field Level Media

Sep 3, 2022; Hattiesburg, Mississippi, USA; Liberty Flames quarterback Charlie Brewer (16) looks to throw against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles in the first quarter at M.M. Roberts Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Report: Liberty QB Charlie Brewer (hand) out 6-8 weeks

Liberty quarterback Charlie Brewer will be sidelined up to two months with a broken hand, The Athletic reported Sunday.

Brewer will have surgery this week to insert a pin or plate into his hand, per the report. The graduate transfer sustained the injury in the Flames’ 29-27 four-overtime win at Southern Miss in Saturday’s season opener.

Brewer completed 3 of 4 passes for 18 yards and rushed three times for 13 yards before exiting the game.

It was his Liberty debut after playing four seasons (2017-20) at Baylor and part of last season at Utah. He has passed for 10,202 yards and 68 touchdowns in his collegiate career.

Kaidon Salter, Liberty’s third quarterback of the night, completed 8 of 13 passes for 148 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the Golden Eagles. He threw the game-winning two-point conversion pass to Jerome Jackson in the fourth OT.

–Field Level Media

Sep 24, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Liberty Flames quarterback Malik Willis (7) escapes a tackle by Syracuse Orange linebacker Mikel Jones (3) in the first quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Liberty, EMU finally meet again in LendingTree Bowl

Liberty and Eastern Michigan have the same 7-5 records, but the Flames and Eagles definitely have different bowl histories entering their matchup in the LendingTree Bowl on Saturday in Mobile, Ala.

An independent program, Liberty will be making its third straight bowl appearance and will also be seeking its third consecutive bowl victory.

The Flames appeared in and won the last two Cure Bowls in Orlando, earning an overtime win against Coastal Carolina last year.

The victory last year capped off a 10-1 season for the Flames, and coach Hugh Freeze has expressed some dissatisfaction with this team’s 7-5 record heading into Saturday.

“I don’t feel like I got the most out of our team this year,” Freeze said. “I want one more shot. That burns within me, and hopefully it burns within our team and within our coaches to prepare to play a really good football team and us play very well against them on national TV.”

A television audience will likely see standout junior quarterback Malik Willis in a Liberty uniform for the last time.

Expected to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in this spring’s NFL draft, Willis has completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,626 yards and 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He has also run for 820 yards and 11 TDs.

“It’s a monster challenge,” Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said of containing Willis. “He can run it, he can throw it, he runs their offense. He’s super, super talented. We know he’s dangerous on the ground and in the air, by design and on his own when things don’t go exactly how they planned.”

Eastern Michigan will be making its third bowl appearance in four seasons, but the Eagles haven’t enjoyed the same postseason success that Liberty has.

The Eagles have lost their last three bowl games by a combined 10 points and haven’t won a bowl game since beating San Jose State in the 1987 California Bowl.

Eastern Michigan, which finished tied for fourth in the MAC West, is also looking for its first eight-win season since 1987.

Despite not having a standout player like Willis, the Eagles’ offense is averaging 31 points a game offense.

Quarterback Ben Bryant has completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,921 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions. Jawon Hamilton (631 yards, four TDs), Darius Boone Jr. (400 yards, six TDs) and Samson Evans (264 yards, 12 TDs) lead a balanced rushing attack.

The programs have met once before. In 1989, Liberty earned a 25-24 win at Eastern Michigan, its first over an FBS program.

–Field Level Media

Nov 6, 2021; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Liberty Flames head coach Hugh Freeze walks down the sideline during the first quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Report: Liberty locks up Hugh Freeze through 2028

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze will earn more than $4 million per season on a contract extension through the 2028 season, ESPN reported Wednesday.

The deal would make Freeze, 52, one of the nation’s highest-paid coaches outside of the Power 5.

Freeze’s Flames are 7-4 this season heading into Saturday’s regular season finale against Army.

He is 25-10 in his third season with the independent program in Lynchburg, Va., including a 10-1 campaign in 2020.

The former Ole Miss and Arkansas State head coach guided the Flames to bowl wins in each of the program’s first two years at the FBS level.

Freeze’s name has been linked to several higher-profile coaching positions based on his success at Liberty.

He went 10-3 in his lone season at Arkansas State in 2011 and compiled a 39-25 record at Ole Miss from 2013-16.

–Field Level Media

Nov 6, 2021; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Liberty Flames head coach Hugh Freeze walks down the sideline during the first quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss apologizes for Twitter account trolling Hugh Freeze

Officials from Ole Miss apologized for a pair of since-deleted tweets from the school’s official football Twitter account that trolled Hugh Freeze on Saturday following the Rebels’ 27-14 win over Liberty at Oxford, Miss.

The tweets focused on events that occurred during Freeze’s coaching tenure at both Ole Miss and Liberty.

The first read, “If you have complaints about this result, send it to lufootball@liberty.edu. If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family.”

That reference stems from a tweet from Freeze in 2013 that challenged allegations of NCAA violations. The end result was Ole Miss was placed on probation in 2017 and received a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions.

The second tweet from the Ole Miss football account included a picture of Freeze coaching from a hospital bed two years ago while recovering from surgery following a strand of staph infection that complicated a herniated disc in his back.

“These tweets were unfortunate and not who we are in Ole Miss athletics,” Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter told ESPN. “When I found out about them, they were immediately taken down. I have spoken with (Liberty athletic director) Ian McCaw to relay my sincere apology. We will work to do better in the future.”

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin offered his apologies to Freeze and Liberty when informed of the tweets.

“I have no affiliation with the Ole Miss football Twitter site, even though it may sound strange, and I first learned about the tweets after my press conference when Keith Carter told me about them,” Kiffin told ESPN. “I’m completely embarrassed that anyone would put something out there like that making it look like it was a part of Ole Miss football. It was extremely disrespectful, bush league and classless, and I apologize, even though I had nothing to do with it, to Liberty and Hugh Freeze.”

–Field Level Media

Nov 6, 2021; Oxford, Mississippi, USA;  Mississippi Rebels running back Jerrion Ealy (9) runs the ball against the Liberty Flames during a play that would result in a touchdown in the first quarter at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

No. 16 Ole Miss harasses Malik Willis, Liberty, 27-14

Jerrion Ealy rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns and No. 16 Ole Miss’ defense hounded Liberty star quarterback Malik Willis in a 27-14 victory Saturday, spoiling the homecoming of former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze in Oxford, Miss.

The running back found paydirt twice as the Rebels led 24-0 in the first half — one in which the defense sacked Willis seven times.

Ole Miss (7-2) recorded nine sacks and three interceptions of Willis, a high first-round draft projection playing in front of 22 NFL scouts and executives.

He ended up 16-of-25 for 173 yards and rushed 21 times for 71 yards and a 3-yard touchdown.

In the first half, Jaylon Jones recorded his first career interception, and AJ Finley also added a pick of Willis.

For Ole Miss, Matt Corral went 20-of-27 for 324 yards and tossed a scoring pass to Dannis Jackson, who snared six passes for a game-high 126 yards.

John Rhys Plumlee had 110 yards on seven receptions.

An Oxford native and Rebels head coach for five seasons, Freeze resigned in 2017 amid recruiting and personal conduct scandals.

The Flames (7-3) got 101 yards and a score on seven carries from Shedro Lewis. Joshua Mack posted 98 yards on 19 rushes.

In the first meeting between the two schools, the Rebels were an unwelcoming host to their former coach immediately — scoring 17 unanswered points in the game’s first 17 minutes.

On the game’s second play from scrimmage, Ealy made it 7-0 by taking a handoff and racing untouched on a season-long 70-yard dash.

After Liberty’s Brayden Beck missed wide left on a field-goal attempt from 38 yards, Caden Costa pushed Ole Miss’ lead to 10-0 by nailing a 43-yarder.

Ealy’s four-yard run capped a four-play, 58-yard drive as the Rebels tallied for the third time in four series.

Finley’s interception set up the first half’s final score — Corral’s 40-yard pass to Jackson on a crossing route with 1:27 to go to make it 24-0.

Liberty struck on a 75-yard drive to open the second half, with Lewis racing 28 yards for his fourth TD of the season, but Costa answered with a 38-yard field goal for a 27-7 Ole Miss advantage midway through the third quarter.

Willis scored on his 3-yard TD run late in the third quarter as the Flames pulled to within two scores, 27-14.

But Finley sealed the win with his second pick of Willis in the game’s last minute and Liberty deep in Ole Miss territory.

–Field Level Media

Sep 24, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange quarterback Garrett Shrader (16) leaps over the line of scrimmage to score a touchdown against the Liberty Flames in the second quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Andre Szmyt boots last-second FG to lift Syracuse past Liberty

Andre Szmyt kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired, lifting Syracuse to a dramatic 24-21 victory over visiting Liberty on Friday night.

The Orange (3-1) needed Szmyt’s game-winner after blowing a pair of 14-point leads and the kick was set up by a terrific defensive sequence when Liberty appeared to have the momentum.

With 3:35 remaining at the Liberty 37, Flames quarterback Malik Willis was flushed out of the pocket. Syracuse lineman Cody Roscoe chopped the ball out and the fumble was recovered by linebacker Mikel Jones at the Liberty 30.

Syracuse running back Sean Tucker gained 168 yards on a career-high 31 carries and also had a touchdown. Tucker also finished with 195 yards of total offense as Syracuse totaled 225 yards on the ground.

Garrett Shrader made his first start for Syracuse and completed 6-of-15 passes for 77 yards and also had a pair of TD runs.

Willis was 14 of 19 for 205 yards and three TDs but also was sacked six times. Willis also rushed for 50 yards on 16 attempts as the Flames (3-1) lost for only the second time in its past 17 games.

Shrader’s 1-yard leap over the middle with 13:40 remaining in the second quarter capped a 12-play, 92-yard drive to give the Orange a 7-0 lead. Tucker’s 27-yard run down the left side opened a 14-0 lead with 9:51 remaining in the second quarter.

The Liberty got within 14-7 when Willis connected with Shedro Louis for a 7-yard TD with 93 seconds remaining but Syracuse opened a 21-7 lead with 9:46 remaining in the third when Shrader faked a handoff and rushed up the middle for a 10-yard score.

Liberty finally got a drive going and was within 21-14 on a 23-yard TD by CJ Daniels, who just stayed in bounds with 2:57 remaining.

The Flames tied it at 21-all 29 seconds into the fourth when Willis connected with DeMario Douglas for a 33-yard strike. Liberty nearly took its first lead but Douglas’ 4-yard TD was overturned via replay and Syracuse’s defense stuffed Willis on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

–Field Level Media

Sep 18, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange running back Sean Tucker (34) runs with the ball in front of Albany Great Danes defensive back Tyler Carswell (2) on his way to the end zone for a touchdown during the first half at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Tucker, Syracuse aim to solve Liberty defense

Sean Tucker produced a terrific performance for Syracuse on the ground and in the passing lanes, but the second-year running back and the rest of the Orange are about to encounter a step up in the opposing defense.

The Orange lost at home last year to Liberty and hope to figure out a way to solve one of the most effective defenses in the FBS on Friday night when the teams square off in Syracuse.

Syracuse (2-1) owns wins over Ohio and FCS foe Albany sandwiched around a 17-7 loss to Rutgers. Tucker heads into Friday with 367 yards and six touchdowns on the ground to go along with seven catches and 148 yards and a TD.

Five of those TDs occurred Saturday when Syracuse cruised to a 62-24 rout of Albany. Tucker is up to 993 career rushing yards in his first 12 games and last week he totaled 253 total yards (121 receiving, 132 rushing), becoming the first player to rush for at least 100 yards and have 100 receiving yards in school history.

“It was just seeing a lot of my O-line blocking,” Tucker said. “They were blocking hard all game and giving me opportunities to get to the second level and just run by everyone.”

Tucker gained 111 yards last season when Liberty beat Syracuse 38-21, and this time he encounters a defense that is eighth nationally in yards allowed per game (234), 12th in points allowed (12.3 per game) and 10th in rushing yards per game (53.5).

Liberty (3-0) sandwiched a pair of routs around a 21-13 win at Troy and is led by Malik Willis, who threw for four touchdowns and completed 21 of 28 passes for 242 yards and rushed nine times for 77 yards in Saturday’s 45-17 win over Old Dominion.

“To this point this year, probably so (that it was his best game so far this season),” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said. “He took two sacks that he should have thrown the ball away on. Other than that, I thought he was pretty dang good.”

So far this year, Willis has totaled 838 yards of offense (613 passing/225 rushing) and 11 TDs (seven passing/four rushing). In last year’s win over Syracuse, Willis completed 16 of 20 passes for 182 yards and also rushed 12 times for 58 yards.

The Flames are 13-1 in their past 14 games and 21-6 since a 24-0 loss to Syracuse in their 2019 season opener.

–Field Level Media

Dec 21, 2019; Orlando, Florida, USA; Liberty Flames head coach Hugh Freeze celebrates a win as Liberty Flames defensive lineman Jessie Lemonier (11) looks on after the Cure Bowl against the Georgia Southern Eagles  at Exploria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Liberty coach Freeze tests positive for COVID-19

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze has tested positive for COVID-19, the school announced on Friday.

Per the school, Freeze received the positive test result earlier in the week and has experienced mild symptoms.

“Since learning of the positive test result, Coach Freeze has self-isolated himself and he continues to follow all guidelines set forth by the Liberty University medical staff and local health officials,” Liberty wrote in a statement. “He looks forward to rejoining the team for bowl preparation, next week.”

“As of today, my symptoms are sinus congestion, body/back aches/no smell or taste and fatigue. Hopeful that’s all I experience,” Freeze, 51, told CBS Sports.

The Flames answered an 8-5 season by winning their first eight games and posting a 9-1 record in 2020. Liberty was scheduled to play Coastal Carolina last weekend before the game was canceled due to COVID-19 cases among the Flames team.

Last month, Liberty extended Freeze’s contract through the 2026 season.

Prior to his time at the Lynchburg, Va.-based school, Freeze coached at Arkansas State (10-3 in 2011) and Ole Miss (39-25 from 2012-16).

–Field Level Media

Oct 3, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  North Carolina State Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren (right) makes a point to an official against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Wolfpack won 30-29. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

NC State upends No. 21 Liberty on late blocked FG

Zonovan Knight scored on a pair of touchdown runs and North Carolina State used a late blocked field goal to pull out a 15-14 victory and end No. 21 Liberty’s bid for an undefeated season Saturday night in Raleigh, N.C.

N.C. State’s Vi Jones blocked a 39-yard field goal attempt from Alex Barbir with 1:18 remaining to preserve the lead. Knight tallied the go-ahead score on a 4-yard play with 6:53 remaining in the game.

Liberty (8-1), which was trying to conquer its third Atlantic Coast Conference opponent of the season, had a 10-game winning streak dating to last season. The Flames ended one victory shy of tying the school record.

The Flames began the potential winning drive on their own 8-yard line.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was 13-for-32 for 172 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Knight rushed for 96 yards on 14 carries.

Bailey Hockman was 14-for-27 for 154 yards and one interception for the Wolfpack (6-3), who were playing their lone nonconference game of the season. N.C. State is 2-3 vs. ranked opponents this year.

State freshman Aydan White made his first career interception on a diving pick to give the Wolfpack the ball at the Liberty 26-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Wolfpack converted, including a third-down pick-up on Hockman’s scramble, en route to taking the lead for the first time in the second half.

After Knight’s run put N.C. State on top, a two-point conversion play failed.

N.C. State was held to 110 yards of total offense in the second half after posting 210 in the first half. The Wolfpack overcame a season-high 123 penalty yards.

Liberty went up 14-7 before N.C. State’s first points of the second half came on a safety. Linebacker Isaiah Moore made a tackle of running back Peytton Pickett in the end zone on Liberty’s first snap after a punt pinned the Flames at their own 3-yard line.

It was N.C. State’s first safety in 10 years.

Willis was 4-for-13 through the air in the first half, but his 12-yard toss to Noah Frith with 19 seconds remaining before halftime allowed the Flames to pull even.

Liberty maintained the momentum by taking the lead in the third quarter on Willis’ 6-yard pass to Jerome Jackson.

Knight opened the scoring on a 19-yard run in the second quarter.

Willis had gone the previous four games without throwing an interception.

–Field Level Media