Story and photo courtesy of Liberty Athletics
A five-yard touchdown pass with just over five minutes left to play completed a second-half rally, securing a 42-35 win for Liberty over visiting Gardner-Webb and giving head coach Turner Gill his first victory at Liberty.
Down 28-10 early in the third quarter, Liberty scored 32 of the game's last 40 points to rally and post its sixth consecutive Homecoming victory. The game was played in front of 18,239 fans, the fifth-largest crowd in Williams Stadium history.
The win ups Liberty's record to 1-4 on the season and 1-0 in the Big South. Liberty has now won six consecutive Big South opening games. The loss keeps Gardner-Webb winless in 2012 at 0-5 and 0-1 in league play.
Gardner-Webb wasted little time taking the game's first lead, scoring on its first offensive play of the afternoon.
Following a three-and-out series for Liberty to open the game, the Runnin' Bulldogs took over possession just past midfield following a 36-yard punt.
On the next play, Carlton Heard was able to find an opening in Liberty's defensive backfield where Lucas Beatty was able to loft a ball downfield. Heard caught the pass and outraced the defense to score on a 54-yard touchdown play within the first three minutes of the game.
The Flames' offense used its own big passing play on the next drive to cut into the Runnin' Bulldogs' advantage and pull within four, 7-3.
Josh Woodrum matched his counterpart's deep pass when Liberty's redshirt freshman quarterback found Ryan Ferguson open 49 yards over the middle of the field on the first play of the Flames' next drive.
The Flames then kept the ball on the ground for eight of the drive's next nine plays and managed to get down to the one-yard line. However, Tanner Burch and Azziz Higgins were able to stop Sirchauncey Holloway at the goal line to force Liberty to settle for a 22-yard field goal by John Lunsford with 6:05 left in the first quarter.
Gardner-Webb used a balance rush and pass attack on their its drive to widen its lead to 11 points, 14-3, during the closing seconds of the first quarter.
Beatty was 5-for-5 passing on the nine-play, 90-yard scoring drive, helping set up an eight-yard run up the middle by Juanne Blount with 1:36 left in the opening 15 minutes of the game.
The Runnin' Bulldogs used another quick stop and the same run-pass formula to push their lead to 21-3 with 12:24 left to play before halftime.
Following a 14-yard completion to Seth Cranfill, Beatty went back to the air and found Kenny Cook open for a 44-yard reception downfield.
Two plays later, J.J. Hubbard was handed the ball and the sophomore was able to find a hole open on the right side of the field to score from 10 yards out.
Big plays continued to factor into the game, as Liberty scored just seven seconds later. D.J. Abnar broke a few tackles on the ensuing kickoff and nearly scored, but his 83-yard kickoff return was stopped at the Gardner-Webb six-yard line.
On the next play, Woodrum pitched the ball to the left to Aldreakis Allen, who recorded his first rushing touchdown of the season to pull the Flames back within 11 points, 21-10.
During the remaining 12 minutes of the first half, both teams had chances to score, but neither was able to capitalize.
With six minutes left to play in the half, Liberty managed to the Gardner-Webb 25-yard line, but Woodrum had a pass tipped and intercepted by Gianni Olivas to end the scoring chance.
On the next drive, the Runnin' Bulldogs managed to get the ball to Liberty's 14-yard line after an 11-yard pass from Beatty to Hubbard which left them one yard short of a first down.
Gardner-Webb elected to go for it on the fourth-down play, but Blount was stopped on the running play, giving Liberty the ball back and stopping the scoring effort.
The Runnin' Bulldogs more than doubled up Liberty's yardage during the opening 30 minutes of play, finishing with 330 yards of total offense to Liberty's 160.
Over 90 percent of Gardner-Webb's came thanks to Beatty completing 16-of-17 passing attempts for 301 yards. The Runnin' Bulldogs had a pair of receivers surpass the 100-yard mark during the first half, with Heard (115 yards) and Cook (107 yards) each catching the ball five times.
Blount led Gardner-Webb's limited rushing attack, carrying the ball seven times for 27 yards.
Woodrum finished the first 30 minutes of play completing 11-of-15 passing attempts for 135 yards. Ferguson was his favorite target with four receptions for 63 yards.
Liberty finished with four less rushing yards than Gardner-Webb, with Allen gaining all 25 of the Flames' positive yards on nine carries.
The momentum continued to swing in Gardner-Webb's favor to open the second half, as the Runnin' Bulldogs recovered a shorter opening-half kickoff to give them the ball.
After a 15-yard reception by Heard and an 11-yard run by Hubbard, Kenny Little was given the ball and he was able to score from one yard out to push Gardner-Webb's lead to 28-10.
The Flames' rally started on their next drive, thanks to three lengthy pass plays from Woodrum. The third and final one was a play that left Pat Kelly open in the corner of the end zone on a 30-yard play to pull the Flames within 11, 28-17, at the 10:15 mark of the third period.
Following the first of three straight three-and-out series by Gardner-Webb, Liberty called a trick play to pull with three points, 28-25.
Woodrum once again completed three 10-plus yard pass plays to set up a 15-yard half-back play from Allen to tight end Justin Gunn to cap off a 10-play, 99-yard drive with 3:39 left to play in the third quarter.
The Runnin' Bulldogs' defense was able to keep the Flames from finding the end zone on Liberty's next drive, but not the scoreboard. A 33-yard field goal by John Lunsford with seven seconds left in the quarter completed the six-play, 48-yard drive and knotted the score, 28-28.
Gardner-Webb's offense was able to gather itself on the next drive and retake the lead. Following pass plays from Beatty to Cook for 12 and 27 yards, respectively, Blount was handed the ball and scored from two yards out to give the Runnin' Bulldogs the temporary 35-28 lead.
The visitors' advantage lasted less than two minutes. After Woodrum found Kelly open for a 19-yard sideline pass play, the redshirt freshman threaded a pass to Ferguson over the middle. The senior raced downfield to tie the game, 35-35, on a 45-yard touchdown reception with 10:12 left to play in the game.
On the third play of the next drive, Walt Aikens, who was one of many Liberty defensive backs that had been bested most of the day by Beatty's arm, was able to create the first of two decisive turnovers.
The junior got in front of a pass intended for Cook and returned an interception 10 yards to give the Flames the ball back.
Woodrum once again completed three passes on the next drive, with the third being a five-yard play action pass to Brandon Apon that gave Liberty the lead for good, 42-35, with 5:11 left.
The Runnin' Bulldogs tried to mount one last effort to tie the game, but Aikens once again created a turnover, this one a forced fumble following a Cranfill reception, giving Liberty the ball back with less than three minutes to play.
The Flames finished with 348 of their season-high 508 total offensive yards during the second half. Conversely, Gardner-Webb amassed only 151 of its 481 total offensive yards during the final 30 minutes of play.
Both teams used their passing games to move the ball up and down the field, with Gardner-Webb throwing for 383 yards and Liberty 388 yards.
Woodrum finished the afternoon completing 25-of-31 passing attempts for 373 yards, the 12th most passing yards in a single game by a Liberty quarterback. The redshirt freshman also threw for a season-high three touchdowns.
For the 16th time in program history, Liberty had a pair of receivers surpass the 100-yard mark in the same game. Kelly led the Flames with six catches for 123 yards, followed by Ferguson's five receptions for 108 yards. Both receivers finish the game with a touchdown.
Allen's second-half rushing effort allowed the junior to finish as the game's leading rusher with 17 carries for 97 yards. Holloway followed behind him with 12 carries for 33 yards.
Beatty led Gardner-Webb's offense, completing 27-of-32 attempts for 383 yards and a scoring throw.
The Runnin' Bulldogs matched Liberty's receiving corps with a pair of 100-yard performers. Cook (7-146 yards) and Heard (7-137 yards) became the first pair of Liberty opponents to finish the same game with 100 receiving yards since 2003 against Hofstra.
Gardner-Webb rushed for four scores on the day and was led by Little, who carried the ball eight times for 60 yards. Blount carried the ball 10 times for 32 yards and two touchdowns.
Burch finished as the game's top defender with 13 stops for the Runnin' Bulldogs. He was followed by Brandon Swayze's nine stops and six different players who recorded five stops for Gardner-Webb.
Aikens was Liberty's top tackler, finishing the game with a career-high nine stops. Kenny Scott, Nick Sigmon and Chris Mayo followed with a half-dozen tackles each for the Flames.
The Flames will hit the road for the first time in four weeks next weekend when Liberty travels to Clinton, S.C., to face Presbyterian College. Saturday's kickoff at Bailey Memorial Stadium is set for 2 p.m.
The Flames Sports Network will be providing both radio and television coverage of Liberty's Big South showdown against Presbyterian College.
Liberty has won the last three meetings between the Flames and the Blue Hose. However, Presbyterian College has kept the last two matchups close.
The Flames used a second-half push to claim a 34-24 victory in Clinton in 2010, while Liberty needed double overtime to win, 27-20, at home, last year.