The Liberty Flames scored twice in the fourth quarter to pull within two points, but were unable to come up with a defensive stop late in the game, dropping their Senior Day contest, 38-36, to Charleston Southern, Saturday afternoon, at Williams Stadium.
With the win, Charleston Southern raises its record to 8-3 on the year and finishes off Big South play with a 3-2 conference record. The Buccaneers become only the second Big South team to win at Williams Stadium in Liberty’s last 24 conference home games.
The loss snaps Liberty’s Big South winning streak at seven games, which was the third longest FCS conference winning streak in the country coming into this weekend. Liberty now stands at 7-4 on the season and 3-1 in Big South play.
Prior to the game, Liberty honored its 17-member senior class (Shane Blanchard, Dylan Bowman, Dominique Davis, Jaquan Glover, Jacob Hagen, Mitch Hanson, Gabe Henderson, Dexter Herman, Andrew Jauch, Dylan Lewellyn, Garrett Long, Toby Onyechi, Bobby Partilla, Greg Ray, Kenny Scott, D’Ante Shaw, Nick Sigmon and Joshua Yoda).
The Buccaneers became the second team this year to amass 500-plus total offensive yards against the Flames. Charleston Southern finished the contest with 576 total offensive yards on 88 plays to Liberty’s 376 total offensive yards on 57 plays.
Over 57 percent of the Buccaneers’ 576 yards came via its successful ground attack, as Charleston Southern rushed for 359 yards on 51 carries, averaging 7.0 yards per rushing play. The Buccaneers nearly matched Liberty’s opponent season high for rushing. Brevard’s triple option attack allowed the Tornados to rush for 392 yards, earlier this season.
Liberty played the game without All-Big South quarterback Josh Woodrum, who missed his first start since the third game of the 2012 season. The junior came into the game leading the Big South and ranked No. 11 in the country in points responsible for per game (16.4) and averaging 277.4 total offensive yards per game.
Charleston Southern running back Christian Reyes led the Buccaneers’ ground game, finishing the contest with 18 carries for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Mike Holloway followed with nine carries for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Stephon Masha, who started his first career game in place of Woodrum, was Liberty’s leading ground gainer. The redshirt freshman finished the game with 10 carries for 99 yards.
D.J. Abnar, who came into the game ranked second on the Big South and No. 25 in the country in rushing yards per game (100.6), was held to 12 carries for 38 yards.
Austin Brown kept Charleston Southern’s offensive moving most of the day, finishing the contest by completing 18-of-37 pass attempts for 217 yards and a touchdown.
Masha finished his first complete game under center by completing 21-of-32 passing attempts for 238 yards and four touchdowns.
Darrin Peterson etched his name in Liberty’s record book on the day, finishing the contest with 10 receptions for 123 yards and three touchdowns. The junior’s yardage allowed him to set a new single-season receiving record (1,101), surpassing Chris Summers’ yardage total of 1,081 yards set in 2010.
Charleston Southern’s Nathan Perera was Brown’s top target, finishing the game with four receptions for 62 yards.
Liberty’s Jacob Hagen had a career day, finishing the contest with three of Liberty’s four interceptions. The senior now has 14 career interceptions, which ranks second best in Big South career history.
The Buccaneers’ defensive effort was led by cornerback Malcolm Jackson, who finished the game with eight tackles and one of Charleston Southern’s three interceptions.
Liberty’s offense was able to get on the scoreboard on the game’s opening drive, which stalled at the 34 yard line. Kicker John Lunsford put the Flames on the board with a 51-yard field goal, his third of the year of 50 or more yards, at 11:34 of the first quarter for a 3-0 lead.
The score remained the same until the first drive of the second quarter. A short seven-play, 38-yard drive was set up by a Charleston Southern interception and ended when Reyes rushed in from four yards out to give the Buccaneers their first of three leads on the day at 7-3.
Liberty quickly answered back to regain the advantage on a six-play, 58-yard drive that used 2:49 on the game clock. Peterson capped off the drive with his first of three touchdown receptions on the day, this one a six-yard reception with 10:22 left in the half.
Following a pair of consecutive three-and-out series for both teams, Reyes broke free on the first play of a Charleston Southern drive and was able to give the Buccaneers a 14-10 lead with a 52-yard touchdown run with 7:03 remaining.
The seesaw battle continued with Liberty recapturing the lead on a 19-yard touchdown play by Peterson at the 2:21 mark of the second quarter. However, Lunsford missed the extra point try, giving Liberty a 16-14 lead and setting the stage for some second half coaching decisions.
The missed extra point brought to an end Lunsford’s consecutive extra point streak at 94, which was the longest in school history.
Charleston Southern took a 17-16 halftime lead into the break after successfully marching down the field and using up the clock before David Kennedy kicked a 27-yard field goal to finish off the 30 combined points scored in the second quarter.
Masha was intercepted for a third time the first time Liberty touched the ball in the third quarter, this time in Liberty territory. Four plays later, Brown found Nathan Perera open for an 11-yard touchdown reception to give Charleston Southern a 24-16 lead.
The Flames tried to play catch up the rest of the contest, managing to get within an extra point on two different occasions, but never overtaking the visitors.
Charleston Southern looked like it might have put the game out of reach, following a 40-yard touchdown run by Holloway that gave the Buccaneers a 38-23 lead with 13:04 left.
However, Liberty continued to fight, scoring twice more to pull within two points. Following a 26-yard touchdown pass from Masha to Henderson on Senior Day to trim the lead to nine, 38-29, with 10:09 left to play, Liberty elected to go for two. However, Masha was unable to find a receiver open on the two-point attempt play.
Following Hagen’s third interception of the game, Liberty quickly move the ball down the field to pull within two, 38-36, on a three-yard Abnar rushing touchdown with 5:24 left to play.
Liberty managed to get Charleston Southern into one third-down situation on the next drive, but was able to stop the Buccaneers to get the ball back for one last attempted rally.
Charleston Southern finished the game converting on 10-of-18 third-down plays and all three of its fourth-down plays.
Despite the loss by Liberty, the Big South title and an automatic bid the NCAA FCS Playoffs will be on the line next weekend when the Flames travel to Conway, S.C., to face Big South rival Coastal Carolina.
The No. 2/1 Chanticleers moved to 11-0 on the season and 4-0 in Big South play today with a 52-21 victory over Monmouth earlier today at Brooks Stadium.
Charleston Southern will close out its 2014 schedule next weekend at No. 16/14 Georgia (AP Top 25/USA Today poll). The Bulldogs host No. 9/9 Auburn later this evening.