MOBILE, Alabama – Scott Symons transformed Liberty’s defense in three seasons. The defensive coordinator inherited a unit that ranked 123rd nationally in total defense in 2018 and led it to 11th in 2020.
Southern Methodist new coach Rhett Lashlee has certainly noticed the turnaround.
Symons accepted the defensive coordinator position at SMU, which was confirmed by Liberty coach Hugh Freeze following the Flames’ 56-20 victory over Eastern Michigan at the LendingTree Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium in South Alabama on Saturday night.
“I think that says a lot about our place and the culture we have and the work our coaches have done. Scott certainly played a huge role in that, ”Freeze said. “People come after our coaches every year, it seems, and our people off the pitch.”
Symons, who grew up not far from the SMU campus in Fort Worth, is the second staff coach this season to leave for a coordinator position with another program. Offensive line coach Sam Gregg is set to become Southern Miss’s offensive coordinator.
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“Sam is going to be the coordinator, we are looking forward to that with him,” Freeze said, “and then Scott goes home where his parents are 30 minutes away.”
Willis relishes last game in Liberty uniform
Quarterback Malik Willis made sure his last game in a Liberty uniform was a memorable one.
He became the second quarterback in the past five seasons to have three touchdowns and two rush touchdowns in a bowl game, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
BYU’s Zach Wilson accomplished the feat in 2020 with the Cougars’ victory over UCF.
Willis, however, was not worried about his statistical success. He wanted to end his college career with a victory.
“It was the most important thing for me. That’s the only reason I played. We couldn’t end the season with a loss, ”he said. “It would hurt my heart forever.” I just didn’t want to go out like this. Being in a bowl game for the third time in a row and the third season being FBS, it means so much not only to us as a team but also to our university, the people who support us. … It’s not just about us. We are proud of Liberty University and the number of people who support us.
Jackson shines in his emotional performances
Linebacker Storey Jackson finished East Michigan quarterback Ben Bryant for a sack with less than three minutes left in the third quarter. He jumped off the grass and raised both arms to the sky and maintained his pose for several seconds.
He wasn’t looking forward to the play. He thought of his late mother, Cybill, who died suddenly on December 8.
Jackson, playing in his memory, totaled a record nine tackles. He added a tackle for a loss.
“Storey played really well. His people would be really proud of him. Our team are very proud of him, of the way he has overcome adversity and managed to overcome it, ”said strong safety Skyler Thomas. “We all gathered around him, we were all there for him, and it was just special that he could come here and play like he did.”
Dominant offensive line
Liberty’s offensive line rounded the eastern Michigan defensive front the entire game.
The unit committed only one detention penalty, allowing two sacks, and the Flames are averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
It was a good start for Gregg and four super senior linemen who were playing in their last collegiate game.
“They did wonders. They won the game,” Willis said of the offensive line. “They blocked well in the running game, they blocked well in the passing game and they came in with a fire behind them. They wanted to put this game on their back, and they did it and they did their best. I’m so proud of these guys.
The Flames have rushed over 200 yards for the sixth time this season, and Willis ‘only sack came when play was whistled after EMU’s Turan Rush removed Willis’ helmet.
Who is kicking?
Liberty used three different kickers for extra points in the game’s first 18 minutes.
Brayden Beck, the starting kicker, scored his first extra point, then was sidelined to the left after Thomas’ 27-yard intercept return touchdown. Nick Brown was brought in to try for the extra point after TJ Green’s 34-yard touchdown, and that kick was wide on the right.
Eastern Michigan was offside on the attempt and Jason Stricker was brought in to attempt the next try. Stricker, who handles the kickoffs, hit the amount on his attempt.
Punter Aidan Alves, the special teams MVP, was the starter for all three attempts.
“It’s the first time,” Alves said when asked if he had started for three different kickers in the same game. “Go out and do as I’m told and try to get the ball down as best as possible and do my best.”
Beck handled the following additional points. He scored his next three more points and converted a 43-yard field goal.
“I’m proud that Brayden reached that big basket and finished like we did,” said Alves.
Eastern Michigan wore a special sticker on its helmets to honor the four Oxford High School teens killed by another student in a November 30 shooting.
The high school flag was also hoisted by the team ahead of the game.
First-year defensive lineman Carter Gilbert, a former Oxford High, carried the key to the team as he led his teammates onto the pitch.