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Liberty not overlooking Army's 'really, really talented' defense

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The mere mention of playing Army in a college football game elicits the inevitable thought of having to prepare for the Black Knights’ triple-option splitback offense. Army boasts the nation’s top rushing offense on a yearly basis.

Here’s another thing to consider: The Black Knights’ defense isn’t bad, either. In fact, it has a chance to finish the season ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense for the second straight campaign.

That has caught the attention of Liberty coach Hugh Freeze and the rest of his offensive staff as the Flames (7-4) prepare to host Army (7-3) for the first time. The FBS independents kick off at noon Saturday inside Williams Stadium. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.

“They’re not just an offensive team for sure. They play really quality defense,” Freeze said.

Army finished the 2020 season ranked 14th in total defense, and it has picked up this season right where it left off.

The Black Knights rank 16th nationally in both total defense (318.1 yards allowed per game) and rushing defense (106.1 yards per game) in 2021.

They rank 43rd in the nation by allowing 212 passing yards per game, a number that is skewed by two pass-happy teams being able to move the ball through the air.

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 458 yards and five touchdowns on 23-of-29 passing in the Demon Deacons’ 70-56 shootout victory on Oct. 23, and Western Kentucky signal caller Bailey Zappe tossed for 435 yards and three touchdowns on 28-of-40 passing in the Black Knights’ 38-35 triumph on Sept. 11.

Ball State’s Drew Plitt (233) and Air Force’s Haaziq Daniels (226) are the only other quarterbacks to top 200 passing yards against Army this season.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team that plays harder than they do,” Freeze said. “That’s a great testament to the character of that team and their coaches. Defensively, when you look at them holding Wisconsin to 20 points and other teams like Georgia State, who’s got some really good players, to low point totals of their year, their defense is really, really talented.”

The Black Knights’ defense is led up front by outside linebacker Andre Carter II. He leads the nation with 1.35 sacks per game, and he is tied with Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. for the most sacks in the nation with 13.5.

Only six other players in the nation have more than 10 sacks in the 2021 campaign.

However, Carter is the only player who is able to consistently get into the backfield for stops. His teammates have combined for 7.5 sacks this season.

Army surrenders 23.5 points per game and is allowing opponents to convert on 40.3% of third-down chances.

Liberty will need to take advantage of its opportunities against Army in a game that is expected to have limited possessions.

“They hold the ball a lot, so you've got to take advantage of every opportunity,” Liberty wide receiver Kevin Shaa said.

Wake Forest and Western Kentucky combined to score 13 touchdowns on drives that lasted less than 10 plays, and the Flames will need to finish off those drives with scores.

“They don’t get out of position very much at all. You really have to drive the field without making mistakes, and then converting in the red zone has been very difficult for people, too, because of the way they play,” Freeze said. “They have a great scheme. [Defensive coordinator] Nate Woody’s been a great coordinator in a lot of places, and he’s doing a great job with their scheme. Then their kids play extremely hard and tackle extremely well, too.”

Shaa is one of 15 players still on the Liberty roster who played in the Flames’ only previous meeting against Army in 2018 at Michie Stadium in West Point, New York.

Liberty’s opening six series ended with four punts, one lost fumble and a turnover on downs. The Flames scored touchdowns on back-to-back series in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 24-14, but two more punts and two turnovers ended their chances at cutting into the deficit even more.

"I remember that was a real physical defense. I was talking about how on film, you look at them, if somebody catches the ball, if somebody is running the ball, all 11 guys, every position is running to the ball,” Shaa said. “I remember them being physical and relentless. Them guys, they're tired, but they're going to give you 100% every single play.”

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