By Todd Wetmore
Special to College Sports Journal
Editor’s Note: This article is courtesy of Liberty.edu
ATLANTA, GA. — A 56-yard field goal by John Lunsford and a Chris Turner interception halted a back-and-forth battle, allowing No. 18/18 Liberty to claim a 41-33 win over Georgia State, Saturday afternoon, at the Georgia Dome.
The win ups Liberty’s record to 3-2 on the season and marks the Flames’ second-straight victory over a Sun Belt Conference school. The loss drops Georgia State to 1-3.
Liberty has now defeated a FBS opponent for the second-consecutive year and the fourth time in program history.
Liberty finished the game with 502 total offensive yards and the Flames kept Georgia State’s quick-hitting offense off the field by dominating the time of possession battle (43:33 to 16:27).
Quarterback Josh Woodrum completed 25-of-32 passing attempts for 239 yards, while rushing six times for 44 yards. With his 283 total offensive yards, Woodrum becomes the first player in program history and third in Big South history with 9,000 career total offensive yards (9,159).
The Flames rushed for a season-high 263 yards and five touchdowns. The Flames ground attack was paced by D.J. Abnar and Desmond Rice. Abnar carried the ball 10 times for 88 yards, while Rice had 22 carries for 87 yards and posted his fourth career three-touchdown game.
Darrin Peterson was Woodrum’s top target (nine receptions, 89 yards). After missing last week’s game at Southern Illinois, the All-America wide receiver moved into sole possession of Liberty’s career reception list during the game (171).
Georgia State quarterback Nick Arbuckle, who led the Sun Belt in passing yards (329.7 yards per game), added to his season total. The senior threw for 394 yards and three touchdowns, completing 18-of-29 passing attempts.
The Flames limited the Panthers to 11 team rushing yards on 14 carries, paced by Kyler Neal’s seven carries for 30 yards.
Donovan Harden led all receivers in the game with five receptions for 179 yards and one touchdown. Robert Davis followed with four receptions for 70 yards and a score.
Liberty’s defense was paced by Jimmy O’Grady, who finished the game with five tackles, followed by four stops by Tyrin Holloway. Tarris Batiste (17 tackles) and Joseph Peterson (11 tackles) paced the Panthers defense that was on the field for 82 plays.
The Flames looked like they might jump on the scoreboard first, but it was the Panthers who got out to the quickly lead to thrill their Homecoming crowd. Following a season-long 55-yard kickoff return by Abnar, Woodrum completed an 18-yard sideline pass play to Peterson on a third-down play to get to the Georgia State 24-yard line.
Stephon Masha came in on the next play, and on a wildcat format, he found a hole to rush to the five-yard line. However the sophomore was stripped of the ball and the home team recovered the loose ball in the end zone.
Three plays later, Arbuckle hit Harden in stride on the far sideline and the redshirt senior gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead a 76-yard touchdown pass at the 12:35 mark of the first quarter.
The Flames answered back on the following drive, rushing the ball seven times on an 11-play scoring drive that included a 14-yard carry by Peterson and a 36-yard scramble by Woodrum. The 75-yard scoring drive was culminated by a one-yard touchdown run by Rice on a fourth-and-one play, tying the game at 7-7 with 6:54 left to play in the opening quarter.
The back-and-forth battle continued, and once again Georgia State was able to benefit from the strong throwing arm of Arbuckle. On the sixth play of the drive, Arbuckle hit Robert Davis over the middle of the field where the sophomore was able to shack one defender and score on a 61-yard pass play to put the home team up 14-7 with 4:23 left in the opening period.
The Flames tied the game on the next drive thanks to Woodrum moving Liberty downfield by completing 9-of-10 passing attempts on the drive for 78 yards. The senior’s accuracy got the Flames near the goal line where Todd Macon capped off the 18-play drive with a one-yard run to the left, knotting the score at 14-14 with 9:43 left before halftime.
Following Liberty’s first defensive stop of the first half, the Flames continued to eat up the play clock, this time taking 6:43 off the clock with an 11-play, 98-yard drive.
The Flames benefited from a pass interference call on a third-down play, which gave Liberty a new set of downs at the Georgia State one-yard line. Two plays later, Rice leaped over the pile, giving Liberty a 21-14 lead heading into the locker room.
The Panthers came out of the locker room and went back to what was working for them during the first half. On the fourth play of the third quarter, Arbuckle found Penny Hart open for a 58-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 21-21 93 seconds into the third quarter.
The Flames responded on the next drive, piecing together their fourth-straight drive with 10-plus plays to take a 28-21 lead at the 6:03 mark of third quarter.
Woodrum completed all six of his passing attempts on the 13-play, 75-yard drive, which set up Rice’s one-yard touchdown run on a fourth-down play to give the Flames a seven-point lead.
Following the Flames’ first punt of the game, Georgia State continued to move the ball, but their drive stalled at Liberty’s 32-yard line. A 49-yard field goal by Will Lutz trimmed Liberty’s lead to four, 28-24, with 46 second left in the third period.
D.J. Abnar set up Liberty’s first two-possession lead of the game with a career-long run to plays later. The senior jetted downfield on a 67-yard run to get the Flames back into the red zone. Macon was handed the ball on the next two plays and on the second, the sophomore leaped over a would-be tackler to score from five yards out to give the Flames a 34-24 edge 19 seconds into the final period.
Another lengthy pass play from Arbuckle got the Panthers into scoring position on the next drive (57 yards to Harden), but Liberty’s defense was able to keep Georgia State out of the end zone. The Panthers had to settle for a 32-yard field goal, putting Liberty’s lead to eight, 35-27, with 13:08 left to play in the game.
Liberty pushed the lead back to double digits on the next drive (38-27). The Panthers were able to come up with a red zone stop, forcing the Flames settle for a 28-yard Lunsford field goal with 5:19 left to play.
Arbuckle continued to move the Panthers down the field quickly, allowing them to respond with a touchdown two and a half minutes later. Arbuckle called his own number on an eight-yard run, but was unable to complete the two-point conversion to cut Liberty’s lead to five, 38-33, at the 2:51 mark.
Liberty was able to recover the ensuing on-side kick and four plays later, Lunsford connected on his 11th career 50-plus yard field goal. The 56-yard kick put Liberty up 41-33 with 2:27 left to play.
With no timeouts left in the game, Arbuckle tried to move his team one more time down the field. However, the senior was sacked by Juwan Wells for a 16-yard loss and then picked off by Turner on the next play to cap off the Flames’ road victory.
The Flames begin Big South play next weekend when Liberty travels to Boiling Springs, N.C., to face the Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb. Saturday’s kickoff from Spangler Stadium is slated for 7 p.m. and the contest will be televised on the American Sports Network (ASN).