LYNCHBURG, Va. – For the second week in a row, the outcome of Liberty's game was decided in the closing seconds. This time, the Flames fell just a yard short of extending their game against No. 24 Norfolk State.
With just over three minutes left to play in the game, the Flames were able to drive to the Norfolk State one-yard line. However, the Spartans' Keenan Lambert was able to keep fullback Nicky Fualaau from catching a ball in the end zone, thus securing a 31-24 win for the visitors in Liberty's 2012 home opener.
For the first time since the 2003 season, the Flames open a season with an 0-2 record after the loss, Saturday night, at Williams Stadium. The win ups Norfolk State's season mark to 2-0.
Norfolk State outscored the Flames, 24-7, in the second half and outgained Liberty, 212-93, during the final 30 minutes. The decisive second half also saw two special teams touchdowns and a fumble recovery for a score.
Norfolk State's defense held strong on the game's opening drive, forcing the Flames to punt after a three-and-out series. However, it was a mishap by the Spartans' special teams that gave the Flames the ball right back.
Grant Bowden's punt traveled 46 yards downfield and during one of its final hops, return specialist Marcus Cooperwood touched the ball and Kenny Scott was able to recover it, giving Liberty's offense another chance.
Three plays later, Liberty made the most of the second chance when Brian Hudson hit Aldreakis Allen in stride for a 23-yard touchdown pass. Allen's third career touchdown reception gave Liberty a 7-0 lead with 12:11 left to play in the first quarter.
The Flames looked like they might extend their lead on their next drive, which got to the 21-yard line before Norfolk State was able to halt the effort.
Reigning Big South Freshman of the Week John Lunsford was brought on to attempt a 38-yard field goal, which had plenty of distance, but hit the right upright to keep the game, 7-0, in favor of the home team.
With time winding down in the first quarter, a big play put the visiting Spartans in their first scoring position of the night.
Norfolk State quarterback Nico Flores handed the ball off to Brendon Riddick, and the redshirt freshman looked like he was going to be stopped right at the line of scrimmage. However, Riddick was able to break free of that tackle and three others for a 71-yard run.
Riddick was given the ball the next two plays and on the second he was able to score from one yard out to knot the game at 7-7, 30 seconds in the second quarter.
The Flames quickly answered back on the next drive, which was jumpstarted by a 65-yard kickoff return by All-American return specialist Kevin Fogg.
Hudson followed the return with a pass play to Pat Kelly, who caught a screen pass and was able to pick up 29 yards after breaking away from an attempted sideline stop.
The Flames kept the ball on the ground for the next three plays, setting up a six-yard touchdown run by Sirchauncey Holloway. His score provided Liberty a 14-7 lead with 12:15 left to play before halftime.
The next time the Flames touched the ball, they pieced together their second 10-play drive of the season and pushed their lead to 10 points. Liberty managed to get inside the 20-yard line, but had to settle for a 36-yard field goal by Lunsford with just over five minutes left in the half.
Both teams possessed the football one more time during the remaining five minutes, but neither team scored, sending the Flames into the locker room with a 17-7 lead.
The Flames finished the first half with 104 more offensive yards than the visitors, 235 to 131, using a balanced offensive attack, Liberty rushed 25 times for 113 yards, while Hudson completed 9-of-15 passing attempts for 122 yards.
Liberty's leading rusher was Allen, who carried the ball 13 times for 85 yards before the break. Holloway followed with eight rushing attempts for 34 yards.
Kelly led all first half receivers with five receptions for 65 yards, followed by two catches for tight end Justin Gunn for 22 yards.
The Spartans mostly kept to the ground on their first drive of the third quarter and were able to trim six points off their deficit.
Six of the team's eight-play, 80-yard drive were rushing attempts, including gains of 18 and 29 yards by Flores on quarterback keepers. Riddick took the sixth and final handoff and scored from 10 yards out with 11:13 left in the third quarter. Liberty was able to keep the score at 17-13 when freshman Chima Uzowihe was able to block Everett Goldberg's point after attempt.
Norfolk State came up with its second three-and-out stop of the game on the next drive and the visitors made the most of the defensive stop.
Bowden booted a 50-yard punt downfield, but return specialist Keith Jackson got several key blocks downfield and was able to outdistance himself from the final two defenders to score an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Norfolk State head coach Pete Adrian elected to go for two on the extra point attempt, but Flores' pass attempt was intercepted in the end zone to keep the score 19-17 in favor of Norfolk State with 10:03 left to play in the third quarter.
But the two-point advantage lasted less than four minutes, as Liberty followed Norfolk State's defense and special teams lead.
The Flames came up with their third three-and-out series of the game and forced the Spartans to punt the ball away.
Dylan Shaddix was able to get off a 49-yard punt, but Fogg got to the outside and avoided three attempted tackles, returning the kick 77 yards for a score. Fogg's fourth career special teams touchdown put the Flames up 24-19 at the 6:07 mark of the third quarter.
Lunsford was able to pin Norfolk State deep in its own territory with a 63-yard squib kickoff. Norfolk State, starting from its own two-yard line, put together a 16-play, 98-yard drive that included a fake punt where Shaddix was able to extend the drive with a nine-yard pass to Joseph Hawkins at midfield.
Norfolk State kept the ball on the ground for the next five plays, setting up a two-yard touchdown run from Riddick. Following the running back's third rushing touchdown of the game, Norfolk State chose to go for two on the extra point attempt, but the pass attempt was intercepted and the Spartans were left with a 25-24 lead with 12:45 remaining in the game.
Later in the fourth quarter, Liberty's defense was able to stop the Spartans following back-to-back sacks and the home team regained possession with just under five minutes left to play.
The Flames kept the ball on the ground for five straight plays, but on the fifth, Hudson was tackled by Cooperwood, who forced the ball loose. Marcell Coke scooped up the loose ball and returned it 41 yards to push Norfolk State's lead to seven points, 31-24.
Liberty's special teams was able to keep Norfolk State from converting on its fourth extra point of the night when Dylan Lewellyn was able to get behind the line of scrimmage and block Goldberg's kick.
Back-up quarterback Josh Woodrum entered the game after Hudson was hurt on the previous drive and the freshman led the Flames deep into Norfolk State territory.
Woodrum led the Flames to a first-and-goal situation from the five-yard line, where they tried to score on two rushing attempts from Allen and a lofted ball to Kelly in the corner of the end zone.
After two called timeouts, one by each team, Woodrum rolled out to the right and had Fualaau open in the end zone. Just as the ball got to the fullback's hands, though, Lambert was able to get a piece of the pigskin, keeping Fualaau from scoring and securing his team's road victory.
The Spartans outgained the Flames on the night, 343-328, aided by 212 yards during the second half of play.
Norfolk State used its rushing attack to keep possession of the football, especially during the second half. The Spartans finished the night with 251 rushing yards and had a 19:54-10:06 time of possession advantage during the final 30 minutes.
Riddick was the game's leading rusher, carrying the ball 21 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Flores called his own number 13 times and rushed for 76 yards.
Allen had his fifth career 100-yard game, leading the Flames with 22 carries for 127 yards. Holloway followed with 10 carries for 44 yards and a score.
For the Flames, Hudson completed 12-of-22 passing attempts for 144 yards and a score, while Woodrum was 3-of-5 for 14 yards during the final drive.
Norfolk State had three players finish the game with passing attempts. Flores led the way as he was 9-of-14 for 62 yards, followed by Jake Basmagian (5-of-5, 21 yards) and Shaddix (1-of-1, 9 yards).
Kelly was the game's leading receiver, finishing the night with seven receptions for 75 yards for the Flames. Xavier Boyce was Norfolk State's top receiver, ending the night with five catches for 40 yards.
Lambert was Norfolk State's top defender on the night. Besides breaking up Liberty's attempted tying touchdown play during the final seconds, the strong safety ended the night with a dozen tackles (6 solo, 6 assisted).
The Flames had six players finished the night with six tackles each, including Fogg, who finished the night with five solo stops.