Last year after Liberty beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome with no fans to witness it, the Flames decided to savor their first-ever win over an Atlantic Coast Conference foe by going back on the field afterward and snapping a few photos.
The teams meet for the third straight season on Friday night and fans will be back in the Dome. It represents a payback opportunity for the Orange (2-1), who already have doubled their win total from last season.
“I’m sure they’re not happy that we were able to beat them at their place last year,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said. “So I’m quite sure that we’ll get their best attention.”
The Flames (3-0) finished 10-1 last season, were ranked No. 17 in the final AP poll and have been on the cusp of breaking into the AP Top 25 again this year, extra incentive perhaps for the home team.
“They’ll be playing in front of their friends. Everybody that’s playing a Saturday night game gets to watch,” Orange coach Dino Babers said. "It’s a fabulous opportunity to get our program in the limelight.”
Syracuse went into that 38-21 loss to the Flames last year with at least a dozen key contributors out with injuries and trailed by just seven points at halftime before folding. The Orange have a few injuries this time around, but they're manageable.
“We’re banged up but nothing like last year," Babers said. “As long as we play as a team, we’ll have an excellent opportunity to win. From a health standpoint I will not ever complain based off what happened last year.”
QB Malik Willis, at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, is the key to the Liberty offense. He's averaging 6.6 yards on 34 carries with four rushing TDs and has completed 49 of 69 passes (71%) for 613 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception. He was 16-of-20 passing for 182 yards and one TD and added 58 yards and another score on the ground in last year's win in the Carrier Dome.
“All you have to do is watch last year’s tape and watch what he did," Babers said. "He’s one year older, one year stronger, one year faster, one year knows their offense better. It looks like he’s healthy. That’s the amazing thing. His style of play you would think he would get banged up a little bit or slow up, limp a little bit. You don’t see any of that stuff. He’s a Mack truck. He just doesn’t go down and it seems like he doesn’t get hurt.”
Babers said both of his quarterbacks — Tommy DeVito and Garrett Shrader — again will play.
Despite the Orange's 62-24 victory last week at home over FCS foe Albany, oddsmakers have Syracuse as a 6.5-point underdog, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
That left Freeze incredulous.
“That’s rat poison,” he said. “I don’t feel like that.”
Although Willis is a dual threat, allowing him time to find receivers is a concern. The Orange had eight sacks in last week’s victory over Albany.
“We’ve got to have the right plan to block those guys up front,” Freeze said. “And, obviously, it takes great technique and effort from our offensive line, and that will determine how quick Malik has to make reads.”
Orange QBs also will be tested. The Flames have registered five sacks in each of their last two games.
Syracuse tailback Sean Tucker has given the Orange the potent ground game they've been seeking for a while. He's averaging 7.4 yards per carry and last week had 253 total yards against Albany, becoming the first player in school history to surpass 100 yards both rushing (132 on 13 carries) and receiving (121 on three catches). Oh, and he scored five TDs, one off the school record set in 1956 by Jim Brown.
“He has fantastic acceleration," Babers said. "He’s got a great center of gravity and you’ve really got to get him to get him, really light him up to knock him down. He’s definitely faster than the average football player.”
TFLS ALL AROUND
The Orange's 3-3-5 defense has 32 tackles behind the line of scrimmage — third in the country at 10.7 per game — for 111 lost yards. Fifteen players are listed in the tackles for a loss statistics, led by senior defensive lineman Cody Roscoe's six, sophomore linebacker Mikel Jones' 4.5 and 3.5 by both redshirt senior defensive end Josh Black and freshman linebacker Marlowe Wax.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
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