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Top 5 S.U. Defense Prepares for Heisman Candidate Quarterback

Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze and his players head toward midfield following a 38-21 victory over Syracuse.
Liberty Athletics
Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze and his players head toward midfield following a 38-21 victory over Syracuse.

Liberty’s Malik Willis has been lights out for the Flames. WAER’s Carson Gambaro examines the QB’s diverse skill set.

Through three games in the 2021 football season, Syracuse’s (2-1, 0-0 ACC) defense has held its own. The Orange are allowing a meager 225.3 offensive yards per game, the fourth lowest in the entire FBS.

They’re about to face their biggest test thus far.

When Liberty (3-0, 0-0 Independent) comes to town Friday night, they’ll bolster an efficient offense headlined by a rising star behind center. Malik Willis has put together a near perfect start to his redshirt junior campaign, passing for 613 yards, seven touchdowns and completing 71% of his throws. The Flames’ signal caller adds another 225 yards and four scores on the ground to his already spiffy statline.

Just as impressively, Willis has not turned the ball over once this season. His QBR of 92.9 is also the highest among all FBS quarterbacks.

It’s no mystery that #7 in red, white, and navy has become the poster boy of Liberty football. After transferring from Auburn in 2019, Willis was forced to sit out a year due to transfer rules. But in 2020, he took the starting job by the reins, leading L.U. to its most successful season in program history.

Willis capped off the Flames’ 10-1 year with a game-winning drive to beat Coastal Carolina 37-34 in overtime during the 2020 Cure Bowl.

His numbers last year were strong as well. In Willis’s first year as a starter, he threw for 20 touchdowns, ran for 14 more, while throwing just six picks.

At Auburn, Willis had only tallied three total touchdowns in his two years with the Tigers. With Liberty, however, that number has skyrocketed to 45 through 13 games of action. Of those 45, two came against Syracuse last year: one in the air and one on the ground, en route to a 38-21 Flames win in the Dome.

Willis’s success against the Orange opened up massive running lanes for his ball carriers. In that contest, Liberty’s 338 rushing yards were more than the entire S.U. offense had to offer (308).

You may be noticing a common trend here. Malik Willis is one of college football’s most potent dual threat quarterbacks. His consistent rise to stardom has even earned him notable recognition in the 2021 Heisman Trophy race. According to Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze, Willis’s mental growth has paid massive dividends to the rest of the Flames’ locker room.

“He’s been a really good leader,” said Freeze. “He carries himself with humility, and I think that draws his teammates to him.”

On the other side, Syracuse’s defense has a chance to break the mold. Defensive coordinator Tony White’s unit is coming off an eight-sack outing in the Orange’s 62-24 win against UAlbany.

Cody Roscoe Pic
Syracuse defensive lineman Cody Roscoe wraps up Albany QB Jeff Undercuffler for a sack.

In last year’s matchup, the same group only got to Willis twice. Moreover, running backs Shedro Louis and Peytton Pickett accumulated over 100 rushing yards apiece. After Pickett’s departure, however, Willis will be primarily handing off to redshirt senior Joshua Mack. The Rochester native had to sit out the game due to a stomach bug.

All in all, the S.U. defense aims to bounce back from its previous blunder. That effort begins with stifling the Flames’ versatile field general.

“[Willis] throws a good deep ball, he throws a good short ball, but he runs so strong,” said head coach Dino Babers. “I’m not going to call him a running back because he’s not, but he does not run like a running quarterback; he’s better than that.”

Syracuse and Liberty enter Friday’s primetime showdown tied 1-1 against each other in school history. In 2019, the Orange shut out the Flames 24-0 down in Lynchburg. Here’s the catch: Malik Willis was not on the active roster, instead it was Stephen Calvert who trudged through an ugly goose egg performance.

If interscholastic trends suggest anything, the difference between an S.U. win and an S.U. loss has been Malik Willis.

Kickoff from the Dome is set for 8 p.m. this Friday, WAER’s coverage gets underway at 7:30 with GZA Countdown to Kickoff.