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Flames not easily extinguished as BYU holds on for 31-24 victory over Liberty

Many wondered which Cougar team would show up for fellow faith-based, independent program Liberty in the first meeting between the two schools

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Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Baylor Romney (16) throws the ball as he is hit by Liberty Flames cornerback Javon Scruggs (1) BYU and Liberty play an NCAA football game in Provo, Utah on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. BYU won 31-24.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Following BYU’s inspired back-to-back victories over regional rivals Boise State and Utah State in its previous two games, many wondered which Cougar team would show up for fellow faith-based, independent program Liberty in the first meeting between the two schools. 

Well, BYU found itself in a dogfight Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium as the Flames wouldn’t be easily extinguished. 

“A win is a win. We will take what we can get.” — BYU safety Austin Lee

Late in the game, in fact, Liberty, led by quarterback Buckshot Calvert, had the ball and a shot to pull the upset. The Flames trailed by a touchdown with 1:27 remaining before the Cougar defense came up with one final stop as BYU escaped with a narrow 31-24 victory in front of a crowd of 54,683. 

“Give a lot of credit to Liberty. They came ready to play. We battled with them,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “We knew that they were a dangerous team. They have some great talent on their team. Just grateful that we were able to make more plays and get this win.” 

“A win is a win,” said senior safety Austin Lee. “We will take what we can get.”

Making his second career start, BYU redshirt freshman quarterback Baylor Romney completed 23 of 33 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. 

Calvert completed 27 of 45 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns for Liberty. Wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden hauled in 10 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown. 

The Cougars gained 471 yards of total offense compared to 431 for the Flames.

At times, BYU looked like the same team that lost at Toledo and South Florida in October as the offense sputtered due to turnovers and holding penalties while the defense gave up some big plays. 

“Though we didn’t necessarily execute, the fact that we were able to put points on the board, everyone feels good,” said tight end Matt Bushman. “But yet there’s definitely some improvement we need to make.”

The Cougars improved to 5-4 on the season, marking the first time they have been above .500 since mid-September. With three straight wins, BYU needs one more victory to be bowl-eligible. Liberty fell to 6-4, still needing one more victory to become bowl-eligible. 

BYU senior Micah Simon, who finished with a team-high seven receptions for 91 yards, was responsible for two touchdowns in the first half — a two-yard TD pass from Baylor Romney in the first quarter, and then he threw a 44-yard touchdown to Bushman in the second quarter. 

That marked the first time a BYU player has had a receiving touchdown and a passing TD in the same game since 1992, when Byron Rex accomplished the feat. Eddie Stinnett also did it in the 1983 Holiday Bowl against Missouri. 

The Flames took the opening kickoff and promptly marched 75 yards on a touchdown drive capped by a 19-yard pass from Calvert to Zac Foutz. 

Liberty’s ensuing drives in the first half resulted in a missed field goal, a punt, a turnover on down, another punt and a possession that stalled when the half ended. 

On its first series of the second half, BYU was picking up chunks of yards until Sione Finau fumbled. Liberty capitalized by responding with a scoring drive on a 24-yard field goal.

The Cougars jumped out to a 24-10 advantage with 4:11 left in the third quarter when they went for it on fourth-and-2. Romney threw a pass out in the flat to Aleva Hifo, who raced 41 yards down the sideline for the TD. 

But the Flames responded as Calvert threw a 41-yard touchdown strike to Gandy-Golden to make it 24-17. 

Moments later, Liberty tried an onside kick that was recovered by BYU’s Isaiah Kaufusi. But the Cougars gave up possession when Romney threw a deep on a flea-flicker that was intercepted by cornerback Bejour Wilson.

Early in the fourth quarter, BYU extended its lead to 31-17 on Romney’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Moroni Laulu-Pututau. 

Liberty struck again with 6:35 remaining when Calvert competed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Foutz to cut the deficit to 31-24. 

“It seemed like we were close to putting this thing away,” Sitake said. “They were able to answer back.”

The Cougars drove into Flame territory and they seemed poised to kick a field goal. But BYU faked the kick as holder Hayden Livingston threw a pass to placekicker Jake Oldroyd. But Oldroyd was tackled short of the first down, giving Liberty new life with 1:27 remaining — and the possibility of the Flames sending the game into overtime or winning it outright with a touchdown and two-point conversion. 

“We live for moments like this, especially,” said defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga of that last defensive stand. “It’s a challenge that we love.”

The Cougars stopped the Flames on fourth-and-21 when Calvert threw an incompletion with 28 seconds left on the clock. 

BYU hosts Idaho State next Saturday. 

EXTRA POINTS: After the game, the two teams, which represent faith-based institutions, participated in a postgame prayer at midfield … Linebacker Max Tooley led the Cougars in tackles with nine … Finau led BYU in rushing with 69 yards on 10 carries … Bushman, who caught four passes for 86 yards, surpassed the 1,500-yard receiving mark for his career.