There are a couple of potential layups on FIU’s nine-game football schedule this year, but Saturday’s season opener at the Liberty Flames isn’t one of them.
Besides being at home, the Flames (1-0) own the added advantage of having already played a game, defeating host Western Kentucky 30-24 on Saturday.
Western Kentucky beat FIU 20-14 last year in a Conference USA game. Translation: Liberty has FIU’s attention.
The biggest key for FIU will be trying to slow down 6-1, 195-pound redshirt junior quarterback Malik Willis, who was Auburn’s second-string quarterback in 2017 and 2018. During that time, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 69 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 309 yards, two scores and a 11-yard-per-carry average.
After sitting out last season as a transfer, Willis was dynamic against WKU, rushing for 168 yards, three TDs and an 8-yard average. His long was a 51-yarder. He also completed 13 of 21 passes for 133 yards, and he had zero turnovers in the game.
A first-team All-State prep quarterback in Atlanta, Willis is joined in the backfield by redshirt senior running back Joshua Mack, who rushed for 100 yards and a 4.3 average against WKU. A transfer from Maine, Mack has already gained 2,939 yards collegiately.
Liberty plays an up-tempo offense under coach Hugh Freeze, who led Arkansas State to a 10-2 record in 2011 and then had Ole Miss ranked third in the nation after seven games in 2014. In 2015, also at Ole Miss, Freeze became just the third college coach to beat Nick Saban in consecutive years.
Freeze was forced to resign in 2016 amid Ole Miss’ NCAA infractions and vacated wins.
Last year, in Liberty’s first season of bowl eligibility, Freeze joined the Flames and went 8-5, beating Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl.
The good news for FIU is that wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden — who had three consecutive 1,000-yards-plus seasons at Liberty — graduated. He was a fourth-round NFL Draft pick this year.
But the Flames have added two talented receivers who have become immediate starters: freshman CJ Yarbrough and junior college transfer Javian Lofton.
Liberty’s offensive line is its under-the-radar weapon. It “manhandled” WKU, according to the ESPN analyst working the game. Redshirt senior left tackle Tristan Schultz is considered an NFL prospect, and Thomas Sargeant has started 37 consecutive games. The Flames also have tackle Bryce Mathews, a transfer from Ole Miss and the son of former 11-year NFL offensive lineman Jason Mathews.
THIS AND THAT
▪ One of FIU’s Conference USA rivals — the 2-0 Marshall Thundering Herd — earned a No. 25 ranking in the latest AP poll. It’s Marshall’s first Top-25 ranking since 2014.
Marshall, which visits FIU on Oct. 30, beat then-No. 23 Appalachian State 17-7 on Saturday. That was Marshall’s first win against a ranked team since 2003, and the Herd is now off two straight weeks.
▪ In the C-USA game of the week, coach Skip Holtz’s Louisiana Tech Bulldogs rallied from a 17-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat Southern Miss 31-30, scoring the winning touchdown and extra point with just 14 seconds left. A 4-yard TD pass on fourth down tied the score, but only after the initial call of incomplete was reversed because a video review showed that Griffin Hebert had one foot in bounds. Then, a freshman made the winning extra point.
▪ Southern Miss freshman running back Frank Gore Jr. — son of NFL legend Frank Gore — had six carries for 39 yards in his collegiate debut on Saturday. He is from Miami Killian.