A year ago, Hugh Freeze was relegated to a hospital bed to coach his first game at Liberty and watched his Flames get steamrolled at home by No. 22 Syracuse.
They meet again on Saturday in the Carrier Dome, and this time the Flames are unbeaten after four games and favored against the struggling Orange (1-3). Syracuse will be playing its lone nonconference game of the season and looking for a reversal of fortune after last week's 38-24 loss to previously winless Duke.
It's an important moment for Freeze and his team. Liberty has won six straight games dating to last season and has never defeated an Atlantic Coast Conference team in eight tries.
“Well, I mean, everything we do is about in year two, trying to advance our program,” said Freeze, who won't have to worry about back surgery this time. “What better opportunity do you have than to go play an ACC team on the road and, you know, hopefully be in the game and have a chance to compete to win it? That’s our goal.
"Are we ready for those opportunities yet? You know, I don’t know.”
Orange coach Dino Babers, forced to play an awful lot of freshmen because of injuries, is wary.
“I think they’re better,” Babers said. “They’re a complete football team.”
The odds, at least, are on Liberty's side. The Flames are slightly favored, keeping Syracuse's streak alive as the underdog in every game so far, and they'll be up against a team that just lost two of its important leaders. Starting quarterback Tommy DeVito is out indefinitely after injuring his left leg against Duke, and star safety Andre Cisco opted out of the season on Tuesday night for a shot at the 2021 NFL draft.
“Next guys have to step up,” Babers said.
Syracuse leads the nation with 14 takeaways and has won the turnover battle in 21 of its last 30 games. In last year’s 24-0 win, the Orange defense held the Flames to minus-4 yards rushing.
“I won’t even watch last year’s game,” Freeze said. “It’s so far removed from my mind.”
Other things to know:
Redshirt senior quarterback Rex Culpepper, who survived a bout with testicular cancer, gets the start for the Orange. Culpepper has played in all four games and is 8-of-19 passing for 113 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
“It's not really a big change,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Chris Elmore said. "Rex is a guy who's been here for five years. He knows the offense. Rex has been that guy who's been waiting for his shot. I know he's ready and I'm with him every step of the way."
Freshmen Dillon Markiewicz and Jacobian Morgan are listed behind Culpepper on the depth chart.
“We've seen some glimpses of them on the scout team,” Babers said. "This is a different week for those guys.”
When the Orange blanked Liberty in last season’s opener for both teams, they sacked Buckshot Calvert, a dropback passer, eight times and intercepted him twice. They will get a completely different look this year from Auburn transfer Malik Willis, who has run for 340 yards and four touchdowns in his three starts. He’s thrown 80 times, completing 48 with two TDs and one interception. Calvert threw 39 times in last year’s meeting.
The Flames are coming off a game in which they scored on a fumble recovery in the end zone, a blocked punt recovered in the end zone, and a 73-yard punt return. Granted, it was against 0-5 Louisiana-Monroe, but when Power Five teams are tested by lower-level teams, special teams and defensive scores often are a factor. For the record, Liberty's first four opponents are a combined 1-11 to date.
Joshua Mack, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound tailback from Pittsford, New York, about 80 miles west of Syracuse, leads Liberty in rushing with 359 yards on 59 carries, a 6.1 per-carry average.
“He kind of reminds me — I’m not saying he’s on the level of Le’Veon Bell or anything, but he’s very patient,” Freeze said. “He’s patient to the hole and then he gets through the hole pretty quick. And he, even for his size, I think, falls forward a lot. You very rarely see him going backwards at contact.”
TESTING TESTING TESTING
Liberty became a focus of concern for Syracuse in preseason camp when Freeze said tests hadn’t been done over a two-week period. To comply with requirements of both the ACC and New York state, the Flames will test every day this week except Tuesday and twice on Friday.
"We’ll keep our fingers crossed and pray that those results are good,” Freeze said.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond, Virginia, contributed.
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