After two postponed games, Southern Miss returned to play for the first time in three weeks against Liberty University. The Golden Eagles showed its rust, though, and failed to contain the Flames’ passing offense, which resulted in a 35-56 loss.
Assistant Head Coach Tim Billings took over coaching duties for Interim Head Coach Scotty Walden, who was unable to travel with the team due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Southern Miss was also without quarterback Jack Abraham and key players such as receiver Tim Jones, who last played against South Alabama Sept. 3.
Despite the challenges, Southern Miss had an early lead. Backup quarterback Tate Whatley, who made his fourth career start, threw four perfect completions on four attempts on the first drive, finishing it off with a ten-yard rushing touchdown.
Liberty quickly responded on the next drive within just three plays, however. Liberty quarterback Malik Willis passed to Kevin Shaa for a 39-yard touchdown, which started the Flames’ offensive streak. Liberty scored on all of its five offensive possessions in the first half. Southern Miss failed to replicate its success from the first drive and went into the locker room at halftime down 7-35.
However, Southern Miss came to life in the second half. Linebacker Santrell Latham sacked Willis and forced him to fumble, which was then recovered by fellow LB Hayes Maples. On the next play, Whatley ran a 16-yard touchdown. The Golden Eagles then recovered an onside kick and led a drive down to the one-yard line, where Whatley rushed it in for another touchdown.
On its next possession, the Golden Eagles conducted a 94-yard drive. Whatley ran for his fourth touchdown of the game on a four-yard rush to narrow the Flames’ lead to 35-28.
Offensive Coordinator Matt Kubik described how he utilized Whatley in the running game.
“That was our plan going in, using what he does well and I thought he ran the ball really effectively,” Kubik said. “I thought we were able to keep them off guard a little bit. Anytime the quarterback can yank one of those and take it off the edge like that, it’s a good thing and that’s what Tate does well[.] I was proud of him.”
Southern Miss could not complete its comeback, though, as Willis rekindled Liberty’s success. Willis passed for his sixth touchdown on a 42-yard pass to wide receiver CJ Daniels.
In the fourth quarter, Willis increased the Flames’ lead with a 38-yard rushing touchdown for his seventh touchdown of the game. The Flames did not slow down, cementing its victory with a goal line rush by running back Joshua Mack.
With a minute remaining, Whatley led the Golden Eagles down the field to add some final points to the scoreboard. Whatley connected with wide reciever Jason Brownlee for a 17-yard touchdown. Brownlee finished the game as the top receiver for the Golden Eagles, earning five catches over 114 yards. This is his third consecutive game with over 100 receiving yards.
With the Liberty Flames still undefeated, Kubik and Billings reflected on how this game still showed weaknesses in the Golden Eagles’ strategies.
“I was really proud of the way our kids came back, especially in that second half [with] those quick 21 points in the third quarter[. But] I still think we had opportunities in the second half to make it a closer ballgame without a doubt,” Kubik said.
“The most impressive thing is our kids fought, but I told them there’s a difference between fighting and execution,” Billings said. “Like my mom used to say, you do your chores, then you go out and play. We’re doing a lot of play and not doing our chores. We weren’t doing what we were supposed to do. We’re playing harder[,] and that’s the difference with a good football team like this is that you got to execute. You can’t just play hard[. So] that’s where we got to get better.”
Southern Miss will play next on Oct. 31 at home against Rice. Kick-off is set for 2 P.M.