Liberty was close to getting over the hump against Power Five conference opponents in 2019 during Hugh Freeze’s first season at the helm. Syracuse needed two late scores to put away the Flames. Rutgers and Virginia took advantage of miscues to seize control. And BYU needed a rare drop from former wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden to hold on.
The Flames had confidence they could hang around with those superior opponents. Still, they hadn’t sensed what it felt like to close out a major road victory in dominating fashion or experienced the thrill of winning in the waning moments.
That has changed for Liberty in a big way in the unpredictable 2020 season.
The No. 21 Flames, who have victories over Syracuse and Virginia Tech in 2020, play their third ACC opponent this season when they meet North Carolina State at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.
Liberty, in its second full-fledged season at the FBS level, no longer enters high-profile matchups thinking of itself as the underdog. The Flames expect to win these games now thanks to winning moments in the Carrier Dome and Lane Stadium.
“Experience is a great teacher. From that, you’re either going to gain wisdom to do something different or confidence to do what you did again,” Freeze said. “The one thing I do not concern myself with or really worry about will be our confidence going into Saturday. I think we breed confidence into our players and I think their experiences that they’ve had with us thus far give them reason to believe that we will go in and compete.
“I don’t really worry about our confidence because of obviously the experiences we’ve shared together thus far.”
Liberty (8-0) owns the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 10 games, trailing only Notre Dame’s 14 straight victories, and three of those triumphs have come on the road this season (Western Kentucky hosted Liberty to open the season).
The Flames, in the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, won three times in 12 road games, including a pair of losses to UVA and a drubbing at the hands of Auburn late in 2018.
So what’s changed this season?
It started with the victory at Syracuse. Liberty had never beaten an ACC opponent in eight previous tries. Some games were close but never swung in the Flames’ favor.
The 17-point triumph, which wasn’t as close as the final score indicated, gave the young FBS team a needed sense of confidence that it could win on the road against superior competition.
“I think the Syracuse game really did that moving forward,” defensive coordinator Scott Symons said. “I think they’ll be ready to rise to occasion and put a good showing on the field.”
Standing in Liberty’s way from improving to 3-0 against the ACC this season is N.C. State (5-3, 5-3 ACC), a team Freeze and Symons said is the best the Flames will play this season.
The Wolfpack have experienced the thrill of beating a ranked team this season — a nail-biting 30-29 win over then-No. 24 Pittsburgh — and also been defeated by three other ranked teams in Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Miami.
The losses to Tech and UNC were blowouts, while Miami needed a late go-ahead score and last-minute interception to secure the road triumph.
“It’s an ACC opponent that’s full of three- and four-star players. It shows when they put the uniform on. That’s what they’re supposed to look like,” Freeze said of N.C. State. “It’s a great, great challenge for us just matching their physicality and their size and speed for a 60-minute game.”
Freeze rattled off the size and strength of the Wolfpack’s defensive line and linebackers, but he also mentioned N.C. State’s wide receiving corps, which is the biggest the Flames have faced this season.
Emeka Emezie (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and Devin Carter (6-4, 216) are the types of tall, physical receivers Liberty has not faced this year. The two have combined for 49 catches, 805 yards and six touchdowns.
Factor in slot receiver Thayer Thomas (27 catches, 349 yards and three TDs) and 6-foot-7 tight end Cary Angeline (18 catches, 279 yards and six TDs), and the Flames will have their hands full accounting for the skill position players who have helped N.C. State average more than 33 points.
“Our guys are going to have to rise to the occasion. When you play these tempo offenses that spread you out at times, it’s basketball on grass, right? That’s what it is,” Symons said. “There’s going to be one-on-one matchups throughout the course of this game, whether it’s our linebackers tackling the running backs or our d-line getting wins. Our corners are going to rise up and I expect them to play really well. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our corner room.”