7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Liberty -1.5, Over/Under: 52.5
The bowls keep coming with no end in sight, as we take a trip down to the sunshine state for the Boca Raton Bowl, where the Liberty Flames and the Toledo Rockets face off. It’s been an interesting two weeks for the good folks over at Liberty (8-4, IND), and no we’re not talking about the insurance company and their brilliant commercials. No, we’re referring to the football program down in Lynchburg, which has seen the end of one era with the next set to begin in earnest; the Flames bid farewell to (former Head Coach) Hugh Freeze, whose stellar four-year tenure ended when he accepted the vacancy at Auburn, only to be replaced by former Coastal Carolina leading man, Jamey Chadwell. Indeed, the coaching carousel has been in full swing ladies and gentlemen, and we’re going to take a moment to break down the transition from Freeze to Chadwell. Of course, though the former arrived at Liberty following his ousting at Ole Miss due to a swath of violation, he was certainly a boon to the university, which went 34-15 during his stay (.694) with four consecutive bowls, which is the most successful period in the college’s very brief history (the program began in 2018). That success earned Freeze a new eight-year deal that he signed back in November, though anyone with a pulse knew that his time with the Flames would be temporary, and for all intents and purposes, they’ve hit a home run with his successor, Jamey Chadwell, who earned himself quite the raise given his exploits with the Chanticleers, putting them on the map with a 31-6 record over the last three years. The 45-year-old led his kids to an 11-0 start in the COVID-ravaged 2020 season, with the Chantis climbing as high as ninth in the AP Poll, upsetting (No. 8) BYU along the way. So, what will Chadwell be inheriting, you ask? Well, there is no question that his predecessor has left the cupboards full of talent, and with their transition to Conference USA set to take place next month, the time is now for this once fledgling program to keep growing. Liberty started strong, winning eight of their first nine games before fading hard down the stretch, dropping each of their final three games of the regular season, two of which coming by a combined FOUR points. Replacing (fourth round pick) Malik Willis at Quarterback turned out to be more arduous than initially thought, but there is enough talent for Chadwell to start with; (Junior) Jonathan Bennett and (Redshirt Freshman) Kaidon Salter both saw plenty of action in 2022, with the former spending the last four years in Lynchburg, while the latter transferred from Tennessee. Of the two, Bennett clearly held Freeze’s confidence, appearing in eleven games opposed to seven for Salter, completing 58.5% of his passes for 1,534 yards on 6.8 yards per attempt with twelve touchdowns in comparison to nine interceptions. (Sophomore Receiver) Demario Douglas shined no matter who threw him the football, reeling in seventy-three passes for 977 yards and six touchdowns, while also making an impact in the run game with a 75-yard touchdown run in a narrow 36-33 loss at Connecticut. Douglas (pictured below) had a habit of showing out against tougher competition, torching Wake Forest for 124 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches, while compiling 145 yards and a score on seven receptions in a 21-19 upset over Arkansas. The Defense also figures to have a strong foundation in place for Chadwell, for despite only having four returning starters back from a unit that allowed 21.5 points on 320 total yards per game, 2022 saw the Flames relinquish 24.9 points (56th in FBS) on 345.3 total yards, which isn’t that big of a drop-off. (Defensive Tackle) Kendy Charles and (Middle Linebacker) Ahmad Walker combined for 9.5 sacks and twenty-one tackles for loss as sophomores, while (Junior Defensive End) Treshaun Clark has another year of eligibility left after totaling four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. And then there is (Junior Safety) Robert Rahimi, who flourished as a Rover Back within (Co-Defensive Coordinators) Josh Aldridge and Jack Curtis’ scheme, logging FIVE interceptions. Speaking of Aldridge, he will serve as the Interim Head Coach for tonight’s affair, though it is unclear if he will be retained as part of Chadwell’s incoming coaching staff, or perhaps join Freeze at Auburn.
When we last saw Liberty, they ended the regular season on that aforementioned three-game losing streak, though the finale wouldn’t be nearly as close as its predecessors, as New Mexico State HAMMERED them in a 49-14 drubbing at Williams Stadium. This one was about as one-sided as they get, folks, for if not for a short touchdown run from (Senior Tailback) T.J. Green, the Aggies would have scored FORTY-NINE unanswered points. As had been the case during the previous two defeats, turnovers played a large role in this affair, with the Flames committing three, including a pair of lost fumbles and an interception tossed by (Senior Quarterback) Charlie Brewer. Of course, many thought that Brewer would be the clear QB1 at the start of the campaign following his time at Baylor, but after kicking the proverbial tires at Utah, the Senior suffered a broken hand, appearing in just three games and throwing eight passes. The aforementioned duo of Bennett and Salter also saw action in this matchup, with the former completing 8-of-13 passes for just seventy-two yards, while the latter was 12-of-17 for 101 yards and a touchdown. In the end, Liberty’s Defense was throttled by the visitors, giving up 428 total yards on twenty-four first downs, including 214 of the rushing variety and four touchdowns on forty-three carries. Looking to tonight’s contest, is undefeated in the three bowls that they’ve appeared in, dumping Eastern Michigan in their most recent appearance, a 56-20 victory in last winter’s LendingTree Bowl. Though Willis was the undisputed star of that show, scoring five touchdowns on the day, Bennett did get an opportunity to perform, though it was one of the most bizarre stat lines in recent memory; he attempted just two passes, one of which was a 64-yard touchdown and the other an interception. Coming into this matchup, Liberty is 4-6 against the spread over their last ten games overall and matching that number in their last ten on the road. However, being branded as a favorite by the oddsmakers has NOT been kind to them of late, with the Flames failing to cover five straight in that regard. On the injury front, (Sophomore Tailback) Dae Dae Hunter tore his LCL back in early November, ending his season.
Meanwhile, while their opponent transitions from one regime to another, things are coming full circle at Toledo (8-5, 5-3 in MAC), where (longtime Head Coach) Jason Candle returns to the scene of his first victory leading the program. After being hired by Matt Campbell as the Offensive Coordinator back in 2012, Candle would spend the next four years overseeing one of the better attacks in the Mid-American Conference. When Campbell left for Iowa State following the conclusion of the regular 2015 season, Candle took over as the interim for, you guessed it, the Boca Raton Bowl; back on December 22nd, 2015, Candle led the Rockets to a 32-17 victory over the (24) Temple, the first of many for the Salem, Ohio native. He would eventually guide his troops to an 11-2 finish and a MAC Championship in 2017, earning MAC Coach of the year honors along the way. However, since sitting atop the league five years ago, they’ve amassed a 32-27 record (.543), though they appear to have turned that corner thanks to a veteran group, claiming their first league title in five years. Despite not possessing as many returning starters as they did a year ago, the Offense remained potent, averaging 32.1 points per game (39th in FBS) on 405.8 total yards, equating to a healthy 5.6 yards per play. (Sophomore Quarterback) DeQuan Finn (pictured below) became entrenched as the starter over the second half of last season, and his impact has carried over in 2022, with the dual threat completing 59.1% of his passes for 2,127 yards on 7.3 yards per attempt, with twenty-two touchdowns opposed to twelve interceptions, while also leading the team with eight rushing scores and another 608 yards. He’s developed a stellar rapport with (Sophomore Receiver) Jerjuan Newton and (Senior Tight End) Jamal Turner, with the former hauling in forty-eight passes for 788 yards and nine touchdowns, while the latter has reeled in twenty-six receptions for 325 yards and eight touchdowns. While this group can certainly be prolific, they’ve shot themselves in the foot way too much, committing TWENTY-FIVE turnovers this season, with at least one in every game save for three, including their 17-7 triumph over Ohio in the MAC Championship Game (more on this one shortly). Indeed, there have been some real stinkers in this regard, as Toledo topped three turnovers on four occasions this season, including a staggering SIX in a 27-24 loss at Buffalo back in late October. With that said, the common tissue here is that in those four outings, they only lost by one possession, which is a telltale sign of a team that is capable of doing bigger things if only they can manage to stay out of their own way. (Co-Defensive Coordinators) Craig Kuligowski and Ross Watson have overseen a strong, experienced group, that has relinquished 25.5 points per game (59th in FBS) on 331.8 total yards, and those numbers would have looked better had their teammates on the opposite side of the football taken better care of it. There are playmakers to be found here, folks, including (Senior Defensive Tackle) Desjuan Johnson, who has been a proverbial wrecking ball in the trenches, with 5.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss, while (fellow Senior) Jamal Hines has applied plenty of pressure alongside him, with a team-best 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. Furthermore, (Senior Safety) Zach Ford may have received all of the preseason hype, but it has been (Sophomore Cornerback) Quinyon Mitchell, who has shined the brightest with five interceptions, FOUR of which came in a trip to Northern Illinois, and an NCAA-best TWENTY defended passes.
When we last saw Toledo, they managed to gut out their eleventh conference championship in a narrow 17-7 victory over Ohio in the MAC Championship Game, three weeks ago. Losing their final two games of the regular season, the Rockets were NOT in their best form heading into that showdown with the Bobcats, and for the most part that was reflected in the contest. With that said, Candle’s charges would set the tone early with an 8-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 29-yard jaunt into the end zone courtesy of (Sophomore Tailback) Jaquez Stewart. From there, the two sides would trade punts until Ohio struck back with a touchdown of their own, though Toledo would wrestle momentum back as (Junior Linebacker) Nate Bauer intercepted C.J. Harris, setting up a (Sophomore Kicker) Thomas Clucky field goal from forty-four yards out right before halftime. The second half would prove largely uneventful with no scores until the aforementioned Finn found (Sophomore Receiver) DeMeer Blankumsee for a 16-yard touchdown to extend their lead. The Defense stood out down the stretch, forcing a pair of turnovers on downs, while the Bobcats missed a desperate 56-yard field goal attempt along the way. In the end, the champs played a rare clean game, racking up 390 total yards on twenty first downs, rushing for 236 yards on forty-six attempts, and converted a healthy 8-of-16 third downs, allowing them to control time of possession (33:00) in the process. Finn played well, completing 16-of-25 passes for 154 yards and that touchdown to Blankumsee, while rushing for another eighty-six yards on eighteen carries. The aforementioned Newton caught six passes for seventy-seven yards, while Bauer turned the tide with that interception. Looking to tonight’s matchup, Toledo has covered the spread in four of their last ten games overall, while matching that number in their last ten games away from the Glass Bowl. Being an underdog hasn’t served them well, for the Rockets have failed to cover all but three of their last ten games when they’ve received points. However, this could be the most relevant trend as far as tonight’s affair in concerned: Toledo is 0-4 against the spread in their last four bowls, with their most recent being a 31-24 defeat to Middle Tennessee as a 10-point favorite in last winter’s Bahamas Bowl. In fact, they’ve lost outright in each of the last three bowls that they’ve participated in, all of which coming under the watch of Candle. On the injury front, the Rockets are as healthy as any team can be at this juncture of the season, with no major absences expected for this first-ever meeting with the Flames.