By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
ATLANTA, GA. — In the past two seasons, Liberty University has claimed two victories over Sun Belt Conference football opponents, the most recent coming Saturday with a 41-33 win at Georgia State.
It was the fourth time in school history that the Flames had toppled a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Much like it did in last season’s homecoming-ruining, 55-48 overtime win at Appalachian State, Liberty executed a series of key plays late to dispatch an opponent competing with 22 more scholarships.
There was John Lunsford — perhaps college football’s best kicker — nailing a career-long 56-yard field goal to provide the Flames with some needed breathing room.
Chris Turner contributed the game-clinching interception off talented Panther quarterback Nick Arbuckle, one play after Juwan Wells had sacked the Sun Belt’s leading passer for a 16-yard loss on the previous play.
Liberty’s senior leader Josh Woodrum, one of the most experienced QBs in the Football Championship Subdivision, was steady, completing 25-of-32 passes for 239 yards, while exploiting the GSU defense with six rushes for 44 yards, hitting All-American receiver Darrin Peterson nine times for 89 yards.
The Flames (3-2) scorched the Georgia State defense for 502 yards of total offense and dominated time of possession 43 1/2 minutes to 16 1/2 to keep the potent Panther attack off the field.
Liberty rushed for a season-high 263 yards and five touchdowns as D.J. Abner slashed for 88 yards on 10 carries and Desmond Rice added 87 yards on 22 more attempts, three of them ending in the end zone.
Coming off the most successful season in the school’s football history, where the Flames beat one of the most storied programs in FCS — Appalachian State — and followed that up with a Big South-title-clinching victory over Coastal Carolina, their first playoff triumph at James Madison and a near upset on the road over Villanova one week later, Liberty still finds itself on the outside, looking in of larger aspirations.
Just a couple of weeks ago, this writer witnessed the largest crowd in Arthur Williams Stadium history turn out to see the Flames knock off Montana, 31-21.
That momentum might have been slowed by the 34-13 loss to Southern Illinois a week later, but Liberty remains one of the teams in FCS talented enough to make some noise in this year’s postseason.
No team currently competing in FCS has the abundance of resources available to make a more seamless transition into the FBS ranks. Besides an ever-expanding student body — fueled by the school’s farsighted foray into online education, its own television network and its easily-expandable facilities — Liberty can’t find an FBS conference willing to take the chance on this potential mid-major juggernaut.
On the evening that Liberty knocked off Appalachian State last October, I sat with Flame athletic director Jeff Barber and discussed the obvious frustrations that many in the LU family obviously feel.
“We just keep trying to control what we can control,” said Barber.
There was a time where the personality of school founder Jerry Falwell often overwhelmed perceptions of Liberty outside of the Lynchburg, Virginia campus. But Falwell’s son, Jerry Jr., has navigated a different, less confrontational course.
The main reason that conferences such as Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the Mid-American Conference and even the American Athletic Conference, have overlooked Liberty — a school much better prepared for an FBS move than recent FCS departees like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion and Georgia State — is fear of competition.
As a college that has the national reach among Christians that Brigham Young University has among those of the Mormon faith, members of those conferences outside of what is now recognized as the Big Five of college football (the ACC, Big Ten, Big-12, Pac-12 and SEC) are concerned about how far the Liberty program could soar.
With the victories over Appalachian State — a team that finished third in the Sun Belt in its first season of FBS competition — and Georgia State, the Flames have proven they are already capable of facing off with the Sun Belt and Liberty’s addition would further energize a once-morbund league that needs all of the help it needs.
For now, however, Liberty will keep taking advantage of the shots it receives against FBS teams and continue building for its future.