MOBILE – Liberty went three-and-out on its first possession of the game.
After that, the Flames scored on seven of their next eight possessions and cruised to a 56-20 win over Eastern Michigan on the 23rd annual LendingTree Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile.
Rain and lightning disrupted pregame activities with three different stoppages. The start of the game was even delayed 15 minutes due to the weather.
After the slow start, Liberty provided the offensive thunder and posted the sixth-highest point total in bowl history.
“We were pretty good, we probably could’ve scored a lot more if we had stayed with our tempo; they didn’t like that a bit when we were going fast,” head coach Hugh Freeze said following the game. “I thought we were pretty efficient outside of a few drives where we had penalties offensively, it was definitely one of our better efforts this year. “
Liberty came to town with a three-game losing streak but leaves Mobile with a perfect 3-0 bowl record. The Flames join Appalachian State as the only two teams to win all three bowl games in their first three seasons of bowl eligibility after transitioning from FCS to FBS.
“It means the world to me to be able to see the look of the guys’ faces after becoming the first team to win three-straight bowl games in school history,” Willis said. “We couldn’t end the season on a loss. That would hurt my heart forever and I didn’t want to go out like that. To be in a bowl game for the third time in a row in our third season of being FBS means so much to not only us as a team, but to our university and the people who support us. It’s not just about us. We take pride in Liberty University and the people behind us.”
Willis completed 13-of-24 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns. He also added 58 yards and two more TDs in the ground. Overall, he accounted for 289 yards and five touchdowns. It marked his fourth game this season with five or more TDs.
He was named the 2021 LendingTree Bowl Most Valuable Player for is performance.
Things did not start promising for the Flames.
Eastern Michigan took the opening kickoff and marched into the red zone before settling for a 27-yard field goal by Chad Ryland to put the Eagles up 3-0.
Liberty went three-and-out on its first possession, but the defense forced a three-and-out the next time the Eagles had the ball.
The Flames (8-5) wasted little time on its next possession scoring in five plays, capped Willis’ 54-yard touchdown pass to DJ Stubbs gave Liberty a 7-3 lead.
The defense scored the next touchdown when Skylar Thomas had a 27-yard interception return to give the Flames a 13-3 lead.
In addition to the “Pick 6”, Thomas added three tackles to earn Defensive MVP honors.
EMU (7-6) answered with its lone touchdown of the night when Samson Evans capped a 10-play drive with a 2-yard run to cut the lead to 13-10.
Then lightning struck again, this time in the form of the Flames offense.
Liberty scored on six of its next seven possessions (5 TDs) and all of sudden had scored 43 unanswered points to take a 56-10 lead late in the third quarter.
Willis fired a 20-yard TD pass to J. Huntley, and Willis closed out the half with a 2-yard TD run to push the lead to 33-10
On the second possession of the second half, he had a 35-yard TD burst to up the lead to 39-10. He closed his night with a 3-yard TD pass to Demario Douglas late in the third quarter.
Backup quarterback J Bennett fired a 64-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Shaa on his first snap of the game to stretch the lead to 56-10.
EMU scored the final 10 points when Ryland nailed a 43-yard field goal. He closed the season by making 18 straight field goals for the Eagles. Jeff Hubbard had a 34-yard interception return to cap the scoring.
Liberty running back TJ Green ran for 88 yards to earn Offensive MVP honors. He averaged 11 yards per carry and scored one touchdown.
Liberty punter Aiden Alves dropped a 62-yard punt at the EMU 1-yard line and earned Special Teams MVP honors.