Biblical brawl: Slumping BYU, surging Liberty clash Saturday in Flames’ ‘biggest home football game ever’
Fans wonder which BYU team will show up for the afternoon matinee pitting college football independents at tiny Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia
LYNCHBURG, Va. — As they have the past 12 or so years after picking up their second or third loss of the season — with the exception of 2020, when they went 11-1 against a patched-together schedule — the BYU Cougars have spent a lot of time this week talking about motivation now that their aspirations of making a big-time bowl game have vanished like their defense did against Arkansas.
“BYU football will bounce back to what our identity is and what we can hang our hat on. That’s what it comes down to. We know what is coming up in the near future, so we have got to get ourselves ready, and that is in a lot of different areas.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
The 4-3 Cougars insist, as they always do, that all is not lost and they still have plenty to play for, especially pride, in their final season before joining the Big 12 in 2023.
In the days leading up to their long-awaited showdown with fellow independent and private, faith-based institution BYU, the 6-1 Liberty Flames have also talked a lot about motivation, but for entirely different reasons. Liberty hasn’t been shy about proclaiming Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. MDT clash at sold-out 25,000-seat Williams Stadium in front of ESPNU cameras as epic as it gets in the afternoon shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“It is, without a doubt, the biggest home football game this program has ever had,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said in a videotaped team meeting Monday that apparently was so important that the program sent it out on social media. Of course, Freeze also on Monday referred to statements Liberty founder Rev. Jerry Falwell made a half-century ago that the evangelical Christian school would one day use athletics as a means to national relevance, as BYU has done.
The Cougars’ visit, albeit as a middling program this year coming off back-to-back losses, is “the fulfillment of a vision,” Freeze has said.
When it comes to actually playing a rather meaningless midseason game in the eyes of the rest of the country, which will win out — BYU’s pride, legacy and tradition, or Liberty’s hunger for more progress in the long longed-for pursuit of prominence?
BYU fans will answer that it depends on which Cougars team shows up. The one that drubbed South Florida and edged defending Big 12 champion Baylor, or the outfit that sputtered offensively against Notre Dame in Las Vegas and then looked utterly clueless on defense last week in Provo against Arkansas?
“BYU football will bounce back to what our identity is and what we can hang our hat on,” head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday, a few hours after Freeze’s impassioned speech. “That’s what it comes down to. We know what is coming up in the near future, so we have got to get ourselves ready, and that is in a lot of different areas.”
Back in Utah and throughout Cougar Nation — which had limited access to tickets in the smallish stadium — all eyes are on the BYU defense, after it gave up 644 yards, 12 of 15 third-down tries, and 52 points to the Razorbacks. Although not its calling card in 2022, Liberty’s offense is capable of decent numbers, especially if Baylor/Utah transfer quarterback Charlier Brewer can play, local observers here say.
Brewer — yes, the same guy that quarterbacked the Utes to a 26-17 loss at BYU 13 months and two weeks ago — fractured the thumb in his right hand in the second offensive series of the Flames opener at Southern Miss and hasn’t played since. He’s been pinpointing the BYU game as being perfect for his return, practicing more this past week than ever.
“Charlie wants to play badly. He’s not ready today (Thursday), in my opinion, but he wants to play badly. Wouldn’t shock me for us to try him if things aren’t going well, but I’ve just got to see how he improves. He doesn’t have enough flexibility in his hand to make me feel confident he can make every throw he needs to make for us to win this game. I am hopeful it gets better before Saturday,” Freeze told the News & Advance of Lynchburg.
Sitake reminded reporters this week that Liberty’s only loss was to now-No. 13 Wake Forest 37-36 in Winston Salem and that quarterback Kaidon Salter was as good in that game as Wake’s highly touted Sam Hartman. Another QB, Johnathan Bennett, improved to 3-0 as LU’s starter in the Flames’ closer-than-comfort 21-20 win over FCS Gardner-Webb last week in Lynchburg.
“High-powered offense, really good group of running backs who can really run the ball,” Sitake said. “And then whoever they have at quarterback I am sure they are going to coach really well and have really good skill receivers and the defense is tough, too. Really well-coached team. We have a tough matchup this weekend.”
BYU is anywhere between a 4- and 6-point favorite, so a Liberty win couldn’t be considered a big upset. Right now, the Cougars’ reputation as a national brand is bigger than their bite, so a field-storming isn’t out of the question.
The Cougars are clearly heading into a hyped-up hornets’ nest, where home-field advantage and heavily harbored hopes will seemingly mean something.
“It is going to be a great day of celebration of kinda where the vision has come that Dr. Falwell cast many years ago,” Freeze said.
More than 2,000 miles across the country, the Cougars have noticed.
“Yeah, should be a great environment,” BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Tuesday. Offensive line coach Darrell Funk has played there before. He said it is a great … environment. He said it is a great college football stadium and they are a good team. So it is going to be electric.”
Motivation won’t be in short supply, either.
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-3) at Liberty (6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM