RALEIGH, N.C. — Liberty experienced the euphoria of winning on the road on a last-second field goal two weekends ago at Virginia Tech. The Flames stormed Lane Stadium in celebration of knocking off the Hokies in thrilling fashion.
That feel-good moment wasn’t repeated Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Alex Barbir, the hero at Virginia Tech, had his 39-yard field goal attempt blocked by N.C. State’s Vi Jones with 1:18 remaining, and the Wolfpack knocked the No. 21 Flames from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 15-14 victory.
“Gave ourselves a chance to win it there with him,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “Obviously disappointed. Felt like our kids played their guts out as hard as they could. Proud of them and proud of the way they fought.”
The Flames (8-1) trailed by one after the Wolfpack (6-3, 5-3 ACC) took the slim lead on Zonavan Knight’s 4-yard rushing touchdown with 6:53 remaining.
The teams exchanged possessions before Malik Willis attempted to engineer a go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter.
Willis, added to the Maxwell Award watch list earlier in the week, threw a trio of interceptions after only throwing one pick in the season’s first eight games.
Two of his interceptions came in the fourth quarter, and the first one led to Knight’s go-ahead score.
“It’s all on me. I take the blame for that loss. I take the blame for turning the ball over,” said Willis, who completed 13 of 32 passes for 172 yards and two scores. He also rushed for 44 yards on 15 carries. “I’ve just got to take command and do what I’m supposed to do and go out there and take care of the football.”
Willis completed three passes on the drive, highlighted by a 27-yard completion to Noah Frith (four catches, 73 yards) that got the Flames to the N.C. State 26-yard line with a little more than 2 minutes remaining.
Liberty ran the ball three times to force N.C. State to burn its final two timeouts, and that set up Barbir from 39 yards out.
“That was exactly what we did,” Freeze said. “Talked about it on the headsets and felt he earned that right.”
However, Barbir’s attempt — significantly closer than the 51-yarder he attempted and made at Virginia Tech — was blocked by a leaping Jones that signaled the end to the Flames’ magical start to the season.
Liberty was pushed around, bullied and outmatched for 27 minutes to open Saturday night’s matchup against N.C. State. The Flames’ offense had difficulty getting on track. The defense, though it held several times, surrendered yards in bunches.
The Wolfpack’s first five drives picked up 209 yards and featured three trips into the red zone.
However, only one series resulted in points and allowed the Flames, who were outplayed for the opening 27 minutes, to hang around.
N.C. State racked up 158 rushing yards in the first half, but was limited to 11 rushing yards in the second half as Liberty stymied the outside run game.
“Scott [Symons, defensive coordinator] and them had a good plan to stop the stretch, which was the play that was hurting us,” Freeze said.
“We just had to get the feel for it. All week we didn’t practice those types of runs,” Liberty safety JaVon Scruggs said after finishing with a season-high 10 tackles. “We made a couple of adjustments and … shut it down with them running that stretch play.”
The Flames took a 14-7 lead with 7:11 remaining in the third quarter on Willis’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Jackson.
The Wolfpack were unable to do much on offense in the third quarter (they had minus-18 rushing yards in the frame), but picked up two valuable points on a safety that was set up by quarterback Bailey Hockman’s punt that was downed at the 3-yard line.
Liberty, though, was unable to sustain drives after the safety. The Flames punted on back-to-back drives before Willis’ two fourth-quarter picks on consecutive series.
“He’s hurting. I’m hurting because I don’t feel like I helped him enough,” Freeze said of Willis. “You go toe-to-toe with a team in the ACC that I think is one of the top three or four teams in that group, … it does sting.”
Knight rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns. His 19-yard scamper around the right side midway through the second quarter put the Wolfpack ahead 7-0.
The turning point for Liberty came late in the second quarter when N.C. State quarterback Bailey Hockman (14 of 27 for 154 yards) was intercepted at the goal line by Cedric Stone.
That takeaway led to a 10-play, 84-yard drive that Liberty finished on Willis’ 12-yard touchdown pass to Frith and tied the game at 7 with 19 seconds left in the first half.
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