LYNCHBURG, Va. — Liberty coach Hugh Freeze called it the most important home football game in program history.
Then the visiting BYU Cougars went out and played like it was the least important game in their history, like they didn’t even care.
Certainly, it was one of the most embarrassing performances for BYU in the Kalani Sitake era, as the touchdown-under Flames thoroughly humiliated the Cougars 41-14 in front of a record crowd of 24,012 at sold-out Williams Stadium.
“Every loss is disappointing. They all hurt the same. To have it happen a couple times in a row, it definitely feels like it builds (frustration). That’s football sometimes. It is not fun. So if it doesn’t hurt, you don’t love it enough.” — BYU quarterback Jaren Hall.
The Cougars might not have hit rock bottom, but they can surely see it from here. Suddenly, bowl eligibility is in question — and the last remaining goal — for Sitake’s beleaguered crew, which dropped its third-straight game and is now 4-4 with East Carolina (Friday), Boise State, Utah Tech and Stanford remaining on the slate.
Sitake offered the familiar reasons for the bottoming out, along with saying Liberty “is a lot better than people think” and the home team “played some inspired football.”
“I didn’t take them lightly,” Sitake said.
It appeared as if his players did.
Aside from a decent first quarter when they played like the team that beat Baylor six weeks ago and took a 14-3 lead, the Cougars were just the opposite of inspiring.
They played the final three quarters as poorly as any Cougars team in recent memory — given the quality of competition.
“To be up 14-3 and then to have 38 unanswered points was shocking for us, but you gotta fight through it,” Sitake said.
Shocking is one way to put it. Pathetic is another.
“Every loss is disappointing. They all hurt the same,” said BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, who played arguably his worst game as a Cougar after offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said his outing in the 52-35 loss to Arkansas last week was arguably his finest.
“To have it happen a couple times in a row, it definitely feels like it builds (frustration),” Hall continued. “That’s football sometimes. It is not fun. So if it doesn’t hurt, you don’t love it enough.”
Virginia, central Virginia, at least, is suddenly for lovers of football. The Flames racked up 547 yards, including 300 on the ground, and punished the Cougars’ putrid defense almost as easily as Arkansas did last week.
In front of revved up crowd, including 5,000 or so BYU fans, the Cougars laid a giant egg, losing by more than they lost to Oregon — and that one seemed embarrassing.
This one was worse, considering BYU was favored, Liberty was coming off a 21-20 win over FCS Gardner-Webb and starting quarterback Charlie Brewer only got in for a couple plays.
The Flames didn’t need him, because fourth-game starter Johnathan Bennett played like Joe Montana, running back Dae Dae Hunter (23 carries for 213 yards and a touchdown) looked like Ezekiel Elliott against an all-too-willing BYU defense, and the Cougars’ normally reliable quarterback was not the best player on the field for one of the few times this season.
After throwing an early pick, the first of Talan Alfrey’s BYU career, Bennett was 24 of 29 for 247 yards and two touchdowns. He had all kinds of time to throw, was never sacked and also ran for 46 yards in the rare instances he couldn’t find an open receiver.
Don’t look now, but a Liberty running back probably just bounced off a tackle, raced to the outside and picked up 12 yards. It was comically easy for the Flames, who didn’t punt until 4:53 remained in the game.
As he did the past two weeks after losses to Arkansas and Notre Dame, Sitake talked about needing to fix things but didn’t get into specifics.
“Fundamentals,” he said, when asked for the top two or three needed fixes. “I still don’t think we have improved there, defensively or offensively.
“I talk about fundamentals, I mean blocking and tackling, things like that, taking care of the football. We gotta do a better job as a team there. … That’s the first feeling I have coming off the field.”
Speaking of which, as BYU’s players and coaches exited — aside from a few who stuck around to congratulate former Cougar Bentley Hanshaw, a Liberty tight end who was targeted once and didn’t have a catch — Liberty’s students stormed the field to celebrate the win that Freeze had called “the fulfillment of a vision” hatched 50 years ago by school founder Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Liberty led 20-14 at halftime, and it should have been worse for the Cougars, who had been outgained 284-180 in the first half and had gotten off only 23 plays, to Liberty’s 43 plays.
And then it got worse for BYU. Liberty drove 75 yards in 12 plays — after having drives of 11, 11, 13 and eight plays in the first half — and went ahead 27-14 on Shedro Louis’ 5-yard TD romp.
BYU couldn’t answer. The Cougars had to punt on their first two possessions of the third quarter, and that was the ball game. Both teams had plenty of energy and enthusiasm when the game started; BYU couldn’t sustain it.
“You have to give Liberty a lot of credit. Their fans were ready. There was a lot of excitement and energy coming from their fans. Their student section was behind us and so they had a lot of fun. They stormed the field,” Sitake said.
“I know this was a big deal for them, but it was for us, too. It just didn’t work out in our favor. And maybe, looking at it, they wanted it more than we did. And that was for sure, and I need to find out why.”
When Hunter ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run with 7:10 left in the third quarter, it marked the 19th time in the last 28 possessions that BYU’s opponent scored.
BYU answered with a three-and-out.
“I was not completing passes. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t do my job,” said Hall, who finished with a passer rating of 112.7.
“A lot of things (were) uncharacteristic, and that is on me. I gotta have a big reality check and find ways to be better this week and be ready for Friday (against East Carolina in Provo).”
The Flames served notice early that BYU’s embattled defense would be no match for them — even after being able to muster only 21 points last week against Gardner-Webb. They drove 84 yards the first time they touched the ball but had to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
Puka Nacua’s 46-yard touchdown catch-and-run gave BYU a lead, and when Alfrey got the pick it seemed like the Cougars had found their footing. They went ahead 14-3 on Isaac Rex’s 20-yard TD catch but didn’t come close to the end zone after that.
Liberty finished 7 of 12 on third down, meaning BYU’s last three opponents have been a combined 30 of 43 on third down.
Sitake acknowledged that he called the defensive plays and, when asked if he feels “pressure” to make more coaching changes this week, said he will focus on “running the defense and getting the defense better and executing better.”
Then he took a page from Freeze’s book.
“Every game from here on out is the Super Bowl for us,” Sitake said. “That is the mindset that I expect our players to go through and our staff to go through every game. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, but now it is time for us to really show and form our identity out of this adversity.”
After Saturday’s stinker, it might be that the only way to go is up.