The Deacs return to Truist Field for homecoming for their third game of the season to take on an opponent that they have never lost to—the Liberty Flames. Of course, the last time Wake played Liberty, the Flames were an FCS program in the Big South Conference. Things are going to be a little different this time, as Liberty is now an FBS program that has never had a losing record since making the jump in 2018 and has won or 8 more games in all but 1 of their 4 seasons at the FBS level. That is pretty impressive.
- Opponent: Liberty
- Date: 5 PM, Saturday, September 17th, 2022 (ACC Network)
- Location: Truist Field, Winston Salem, NC
- Vegas Insider Total Wins: 6.5
- 2021 Record: 8-5
- Previous Matchup: Wake 20—Liberty 17 (2012)
- All time vs Wake Forest: 0-2
Liberty has been a very good team recently under head coach Hugh Freeze; the Flames have won 26 games over the past 3 seasons and are 3-0 in bowl games over that time span. In 2020, the Flames beat Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and a top 10 Coastal Carolina team while coming up a couple of points shy of a perfect season—their sole loss was a 1-point defeat at the hands of NC State. All of that is just to say that Liberty is no longer a program that teams can schedule for an easy win and is capable of beating just about anyone.
We can start with the breakdown of what Liberty looked like last season, but I’m not sure how much that is going to matter. The Flames had the 25th best scoring offense in the nation last season—scoring 33.6 points per game—and the 37th best total offense—gaining 436.7 yards per game. They utilized the familiar spread shotgun system, but they are not in a hurry to get back to the line once the play ends. The Flames ran around 68.3 plays per game last season, which actually puts them on the slower half of teams in FBS (67th out 130). While they were almost exclusively in the shotgun last season, Liberty was definitely a more run-heavy team, electing to keep the ball on the ground almost 60% of the time. That resulted in around 180 rushing yards per game at a 4.6 yard per carry average.
Now why might none of that really matter? The short answer is QB Malik Willis, who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans this year. Willis was kind of the entire offensive system for Liberty, leading the team in passing and rushing in the last 2 seasons. Last season, combined for 3,735 yards and 40 touchdowns and had almost double the rushing yards of Liberty’s starting running back. I don’t think there is any way that Liberty will be able to replace a player like Willis in just 1 year. The team currently has a 4-way battle for the vacancy, with none of the candidates emerging as the clear starter yet. Between the 4 players, only Utah transfer Charlie Brewer has attempted more than 50 career passes. Freeze recently said after a rough scrimmage for the offense: “Kind of went into that preseason game No. 1 feeling pretty certain maybe where we were headed...Not quite as much right now.” Maybe this is just a motivational tactic, but it’s not a good sign to be unable to choose between four quarterbacks less than a month away from the opener. Honestly, the fact that Brewer—a 63% passer with over 10,000 yards and 68 touchdowns passing and over 1,000 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing in his career—isn’t the obvious starter, kind of baffles me.
With the uncertainty at quarterback, it’s difficult to say what Liberty might look like when the Deacs face them. I’m just going to assume that Brewer is going to end up the starter because of his 5 years of experience, but if he actually hasn’t been able to separate himself from the rest of the pack, perhaps he has lost a step. Based on that, I’m going to guess that Liberty will rely a little bit more on the run this season, especially early on. That will put most of the workload on junior Shedro Louis (446 yards, 5.6 avg, 4 TD) and redshirt senior TJ Green (477 yards, 6.4 avg, 4 TD) to generate offense while they figure out the quarterback situation. That could be problematic for the Deacs because stopping the spread run game was a massive issue for Wake Forest last season. Between Louisville, Syracuse, UNC, and Clemson—teams that run out of the shotgun and use the QB as runner—Wake gave up 307 rushing yards per game, almost 6 yards per carry, and 15 total touchdowns on the ground. I am definitely hoping we will see an improvement in that department this season.
On defense, Liberty was one of the best teams in the nation last season. The Flames ranked 24th in the nation in scoring defense—allowing just over 21 points per game—and 11th in total defense—giving up just 320 yards per game. In what is almost the exact opposite of the Wake Forest defense last year, Liberty was great at everything except generating turnovers. The Flames were one of the worst teams in the nation with just 11 turnovers forced in 2021, giving them the 10th worst turnover margin in FBS last season. Their defense against the pass was exceptional, holding opponents to a 56% completion rate for just 180 yards through the air per game. A lot of that likely had to do with their ability to get after the quarterback, which allowed them to sack the opposing quarterback 37 times last season. They get back 2 of their best rushers this season in DT Kendy Charles and LB Aakil Washington, who combined for 9.5 sacks last season. All that being said, the Flames didn’t exactly play many offensive juggernauts last season. Liberty only played 3 top 50 offenses (Ole Miss, Louisiana, Army) and they lost to all 3, giving up an average of 361 yards and 33 points per game. Those 3 offenses were nowhere near as good as what Wake Forest was doing last season, so I think the Deacs still should be able to put up plenty of points on a pretty solid defense.
Liberty is seemingly struggling to choose a quarterback to replace one of the best players in college football over the past couple of seasons. That may even out as Wake Forest will likely be starting a quarterback making his 3rd ever start in Mitch Griffis (assuming he starts the first 2 games). The Liberty defense has been very good lately, but I think their stats might be slightly inflated just due the offensive strength of their opponents. Wake should be able to score, but the question is going to be whether or not they can stop Liberty’s run game. If it turns into a shootout, a lucky bounce or a costly turnover could be the deciding factor, and I would much prefer that this game not come down to luck. I don’t think this one will be an easy out, but with the game being at home and Wake hopefully improving on defense, the Deacs should come away with a win to move to 3-0.