Home #15 Liberty upset by Gardner-Webb, 34-20

#15 Liberty upset by Gardner-Webb, 34-20


liberty-flames21Gardner-Webb raced out to a 20-0 lead and withstood No. 15 Liberty’s comeback attempt for a 34-20 victory in both teams’ Big South Conference openers, on a soggy Saturday evening at Spangler Stadium.

Quarterback Tyrell Maxwell starred for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who improve to 2-3 overall and 1-0 in the Big South with their first win over the Flames since 2006. Maxwell rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing for 105 yards and a score.

Liberty, which had won eight straight matchups with Gardner-Webb and seven of its last eight conference openers, falls to 3-3 overall and 0-1 in conference play. The Flames got a season-best 307 passing yards from Josh Woodrum and a season-high 107 receiving yards from Darrin Peterson but were hurt by a pair of costly turnovers and three missed field goals.

The Flames trimmed a 27-7 deficit to 27-20 during the second half. However, Zac Parker’s fumbled punt with 3:17 remaining set up Maxwell for his final touchdown. The quarterback’s five-yard plunge up the middle sealed a Homecoming victory for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

Woodrum completed 30-of-45 passes, while throwing one touchdown and his first interception since the opening game of the season. During the second half of his eighth 300-yard game, he became the second quarterback in Liberty and Big South history with 9,000 career passing yards. Woodrum finished the contest with 9,048 career yards.

Peterson was his primary target, hauling in nine passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. It was the senior’s first 100-yard game of the season and 13th of his career. In the process, Peterson moved up to second place in program history for receptions (180), receiving yards (2,652) and receiving touchdowns (23).

Parker caught five passes of his own and recorded his first career punt return for a touchdown.

Defensively, Avery James tallied a team-leading 10 tackles, while Erwin Dessources chipped in seven stops and his first career interception. However, Gardner-Webb finished with a slight 373-367 edge in total yards of offense.

Other than Maxwell, Jonathan Blackmon was another key contributor to the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ explosive start to the game and 268-yard rushing night. The freshman tallied 73 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries for the contest.

Gardner-Webb raced out to a 14-0 lead before Liberty’s initial first down of the evening, thanks to a 14-yard touchdown run by Blackmon and a 45-yard touchdown run by Maxwell, which saw the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ signal caller break several tackles.

Liberty responded with its first prolonged drive of the evening, but John Lunsford’s 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

Maxwell scored his second rushing touchdown of the game from one yard out, 6:14 before halftime, pushing the Gardner-Webb lead to 20-0. One play earlier, Blackmon rushed for 32 yards on third down to set up the score.

On Liberty’s ensuing possession, it took the Flames only two plays to score their first points of the contest. After throwing a 44-yard completion to Dante’ Shells, Woodrum found Peterson open over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown pass. The quick-strike score brought the white-clad Flames to within 20-7, 5:34 before the intermission.

Gardner-Webb countered with a pair of long completions of its own, including a 33-yard pass to Adonus Lee and a 30-yard touchdown pass from Maxwell to Kyle Horton. That provided the Runnin’ Bulldogs another 20-point advantage (27-7), at 3:04 of the second quarter.

Despite throwing his first interception in 170 pass attempts, Woodrum got the ball back for one final possession in the first half. He led the Flames into the red zone, and Lunsford closed out the half with a 22-yard field goal. His conversion made the halftime score Gardner-Webb 27, Liberty 10 after an action-packed opening 30 minutes that saw 537 yards of total offense (294 for GWU, 243 for LU).

Before Liberty’s offense took the field in the second half, the Flames cut seven points off of their deficit. Parker returned a punt 71 yards for a score at 12:34 of the third quarter, marking Liberty’s first punt return for a touchdown since Kevin Fogg did so against Norfolk State on Sept. 8, 2012 and making the score 27-17.

A Dessources interception at the Gardner-Webb 28-yard line set the stage for Lunsford’s second made field goal of the game. His make from 27 yards made it a one-score game (27-20) with 9:03 remaining on the third-quarter clock.

However, the Flames got no closer as Lunsford missed a pair of 40-plus-yard field goal tries and a potential game-tying touchdown pass slipped through the hands of Peterson while it was still a seven-point spread.

Liberty will wrap up its four-game road swing next Saturday at Monmouth, with its first-ever contest in the state of New Jersey. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. at Monmouth Stadium.



Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.