Liberty football rallies in second half, upsets JMU, 26-21, in playoffs
The Flames scored three times and held the No. 15/15 James Madison potent offense in check in the second half, allowing No. 20/23 Liberty to advance in the NCAA FCS Playoffs with a 26-21 win, Saturday afternoon, at Bridgeforth Stadium.
With the victory, Liberty’s first-ever NCAA FCS Playoff win in program history, the Flames raise their record to 9-4. The Flames advance to the second round of the NCAA FCS Playoffs and will face No. 6 national seed Villanova. Kickoff from Villanova Stadium will be 4:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN3.
The loss snaps James Madison’s seven-game winning streak and ends the Dukes season with a 9-4 overall record.
The Flames limited James Madison to 65 yards of total offense during the decisive second half. James Madison came into the game ranked No. 8 in the country, averaging 497.0 total offensive yards per game. The Dukes finished the contest with 336 total offensive yards on 71 plays to Liberty’s 397 yards on 73 plays.
Liberty’s Josh Woodrum, who missed the last two games due to injury, finished the game completing 18-of-27 passing attempts for 244 yards.
James Madison’s Vad Lee, a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, finished the game completing 18-of-35 passing attempts for 139 yards and a touchdown. The junior came into the game averaging 276.9 passing yards per game.
Liberty’s D.J. Abnar (17 carries for 69 yards) and Todd Macon (13 carries for 40 yards) led the charge for the Flames’ ground game that finished with 153 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
Abnar scored twice, giving the junior 15 rushing touchdowns on the year, which ties for fourth best for a single season in program history.
Duke’s running back Jauan Latney led the Duke’s rushing attack, carrying the ball 15 times for 119 yards. The redshirt senior gained 73 of those yards on James Madison’s first score of the contest in the second quarter.
Gabe Henderson led the Flames’ receivers for the second week in a row, finishing the game with seven receptions for 92 yards. The Dukes’ top receiver was Brandon Ravenel, who finished the game with seven receptions for 54 yards.
Justin Guillory led Liberty’s stout defensive effort. The defensive back finished the game with a career-best 13 tackles. The redshirt freshman’s previous career high was five tackles earlier this year against North Carolina.
James Madison had four different players finish the game with double figures in tackles, led by a dozen stops from Taylor Reynolds and Dean Marlowe.
The Flames were the first team to dent the scoreboard during the game, jumping out to a 3-0 lead on a 26-yard field goal by John Lunsford with 5:00 left to play in the first quarter.
The seven-play, 72-yard scoring drive was kept alive by a James Madison personal foul. Freshman safety Aaron Peak was whistled for a targeting penalty on the play and was ejected from the game.
James Madison looked like they might score on the next drive, getting to the Flames’ 13-yard line. However, the Dukes elected to go for it on fourth-and-three and were stopped when Jacob Hagen and Toby Onyechi tackled Lee for a two-yard loss.
Liberty widened its lead on the next drive thanks to three 15-plus yard passing plays by Woodrum to get the Flames into the red zone. Abnar then took a handoff from Woodrum on the first play of the second quarter and found the end zone from 19 yards out to push Liberty’s lead to 10-0 seven seconds into the quarter.
The 10-point edge was short lived, as James Madison’s offensive line cleared a sizeable hole that allowed Latney to get clear of the first line of defense. The redshirt senior then scampered 73 yards downfield to get the home team on the scoreboard 27 seconds in the second quarter.
James Madison used the rest of the first half to take an 11-point lead into the break, turning two Woodrum interceptions into touchdowns.
The first interception came at the 11:42 mark by Marlowe. The safety stepped in front of a deep pass down the field by Woodrum to give the Dukes the ball.
Lee completed all four of his passing attempts on the ensuing 10-play, 54-yard drive, setting up the redshirt junior’s ninth rushing touchdown of the year. His nine-yard burst put James Madison up 14-10 with 8:47 left to play in the half.
Five plays later, Marlowe was able to read another Woodrum pass, recording his second interception of the game to give the home team the ball back.
Lee marched the Dukes down the field, completing 4-of-5 passing attempts, including a 16-yard scoring strike to DeAndre’ Smith to widen James Madison’s lead to 21-10 with 2:48 left before halftime.
The Flames forced the first three-and-out series of the game on the first drive of the third quarter to quickly regain possession of the ball.
Liberty looked like it was going to have to settle for a field goal, but Javan Shashaty picked up a first down with a 26-yard run on a fake field goal attempt.
Three plays later, Abnar scored for the second time in the game from seven yards out to trim the lead to 21-17 with 10:16 left in the third quarter.
The same pattern followed on the next two drives, Liberty forcing a three-and-out defensive stop and Liberty’s offense getting Lunsford into field goal range.
This time Head Coach Turner Gill elected to allow his first-team all-conference kicker give it a go and the junior came through with a 56-yard field goal to pull the Flames within one, 21-20, with 4:45 left to play in the third quarter.
The Flames’ defense forced its third three-and-out series of the second half to start the fourth quarter and give Liberty the ball back for what would prove to be the decisive drive of the game.
Liberty pieced together a season-long 17-play, 85-yard drive that used up 11:01 on the game clock and gave the Flames the lead.
The drive looked like it might end on its first play, when Sage Harold stripped the ball away from Woodrum. However, the junior quarterback scrambled and pick up the loose ball at the one-yard line and turned the potential turnover into a 13-yard gain.
The Flames then kept the ball on the ground 14 more times, continually pushing downfield to get into the red zone. On the drive’s 17th play, fullback Nick Fualaau scored his second career touchdown from one-yard out to give the Flames the lead with 2:53 left on the clock.
James Madison’s offense started to piece a drive together on the ensuing possession, getting the ball to the Liberty 27-yard line. However, Liberty’s senior defensive back Kenny Scott broke up an attempted pass by Lee to Daniel Brown on a fourth-and-13 play with 49 second left, giving the Flames back possession.
Liberty was then able to wind out the clock and secure its first-ever postseason victory in program history.