No. 14 Liberty jumped out to a quick two-score lead and then fended off several pushes by No. 7 Montana, claiming a 31-21 victory on Saturday to cap off Hall of Fame and Family Weekend on Liberty Mountain.
The game was played in front of a Williams Stadium record crowd of 22,551 fans, surpassing last year’s Homecoming crowd of 20,838 fans on Oct. 4, 2014. The contest also marked the first-ever Top 15 matchup in stadium history.
With the win, Liberty moves to 2-1 on the season and marked Liberty’s sixth victory over a ranked FCS opponent in four seasons under Head Coach Turner Gill. It also gave Liberty its third win over a Top 10 opponent in the last four years.
The loss drops Montana to 1-2 on the season and evens the series between the two programs following Liberty’s 34-14 loss in Missoula, Mont., in 2012.
Liberty’s Josh Woodrum finished the evening completing 16-of-30 passing attempts for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
With his passing yardage against Montana, Woodrum became the second quarterback in program history and the third in Big South history with 8,000 passing yards (8,222).
Liberty’s rushing attack was held to 78 yards, a number that was lowered by five Montana sacks for a loss of 40 yards. Desmond Rice carried the ball 20 times for 49 yards, while D.J. Abnar rushed eight times for 58 yards and his first touchdown of the season.
Liberty had a pair of receivers finish the contest with 100-plus receiving yards. Zac Parker finished the night with six catches for a career-high 101 yards.
Dante’ Shells posted his third career 100-yard game, finishing the night with three receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
Montana’s Chad Chalich replaced starting quarterback Brady Gustafson midway through the first half due to an injury. He finished the night completing 14-of-28 passing attempts for 228 yards and a touchdown.
The Grizzlies’ Joey Counts finished the night with six carries for a team-best 56 rushing yards, while teammate Jamaal Jones had seven receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown.
Tyrin Holloway, Alpha Jalloh and Nick Newman were Liberty’s defensive leaders, each finishing with five tackles. Holloway also added two pass breakups late in the fourth quarter to keep the Grizzlies from pulling closer to the Flames.
STATS FCS Preseason Defensive Player of the Year candidate Chima Uzowihe finished the night with a pair of sacks, making him the program’s and Big South’s all-time career sack leader (22.5).
The Flames tried to set the tone for the game on their first two drives, jumping out to a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Woodrum completed 4-of-5 passing attempts on the game’s opening drive, leading the Flames on a 10-play, 74-yard drive that took 5:38 off the clock. The senior’s fourth completion was to Rice as he rolled out and found his running back open for a four-yard scoring strike.
The Flames defense forced a three-and-out series on the Grizzlies’ first drive, quickly giving Liberty the ball back. On the next play, Woodrum aired it out, hitting Shells in stride. The junior scampered down the field 72 yards for his second-longest career touchdown at the 8:13 mark of the first quarter.
Montana tried to get on the scoreboard late in the first quarter, driving to the Flames’ 20-yard line. However the Grizzlies’ Daniel Sullivan missed his 33-yard attempt wide left to keep the visitors scoreless for the first 15 minutes of play.
A 43-yard pass play from Woodrum to Darrin Peterson on the next drive got the Flames deep in Montana territory. However, the drive stalled inside the five and Liberty had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by John Lunsford, putting Liberty up 17-0 with11:03 left in the half.
The visitors were able to break up the shutout bid four minutes later on a drive that started with a 43-yard pass play from Chalich to Ellis Henderson to the Liberty 10-yard line. The Flames defense was able to keep the Grizzlies out of the end zone and Sullivan hit a 22-yard field goal with 5:13 left in the half.
The three-point play seemed to shift the momentum of the game, as Montana scored twice more during the remainder of the half.
The first came after a three-and-out series by Liberty’s offense. Chalich hit Jamaal Jones down the sideline and the redshirt senior shook two defenders late to score on a 70-yard passing play. After Montana missed the extra point attempt, Liberty’s lead stood at eight, 17-9, with 3:30 left in the half.
After a second three-and-out series by the Flames, Montana’s Connor Strahm blocked Trey Turner’s punt attempt that went out of bounds at the Liberty four-yard line. Four plays later, Sullivan knocked down a 21-yard field goal, trimming the lead to five, 17-12, at the break.
Just like it did during the first half, Liberty struck first on its opening drive of the second half to push its lead to 12 points.
After Liberty’s defense came up with a three-and-out series, Flames offensive coordinator Aaron Stamn went to his bag of tricks. Wide receiver Damian King was given the ball and the true freshman hit Shells over the middle for a 32-yard scoring strike to give Liberty a two-score lead, 24-12, at the 12:13 mark.
Montana responded with the game’s longest scoring drive, answering Liberty’s touchdown with one of its own on an 11-play, 81-yard drive. Chalich completed 3-of-4 passing attempts on the drive and was aided by a pass interference call in the end zone.
Directly following the penalty, Chalich called his own number and scored from one yard out to get back within five, 24-19, midway through the third quarter (7:46).
The score remained the same until the second play of the fourth quarter. Abnar got a block from Big South Preseason All-Conference offensive lineman Maximillian Sommer, creating a hole that allowed the senior to rush 40 yards untouched for a touchdown.
Abnar’s 23rd career rushing touchdown put the Flames up 31-19 with 14:16 left to play in the contest.
Liberty’s defense took over during the final 14 minutes of play. The strong effort included back-to-back three-and-out series on Montana’s next two drives with one of the two series being highlighted by a 16-yard sack by Tolen Avery.
The final two points of the game came on a safety. With Liberty pinned deep in its own territory, Gill elected to have his punter run out the back of the end zone for a two-point Montana score rather than face a potential third blocked punt on the evening.
The Flames begin a four-game road swing next Saturday when Liberty travels to Carbondale, Ill., to face Southern Illinois. Kickoff from Saluki Stadium is set for 7 p.m. (EST). The Liberty Flames Sports Network will provide television coverage for the road contest.