RALEIGH, N.C. – For the second time this season, No. 21 Liberty found itself lining up for a late field goal to beat an Atlantic Coast Conference team on the road.
Only this time, Vi Jones and North Carolina State came up with the play to end the Flames' perfect season.
Jones blocked Alex Barbir’s 39-yard field goal attempt with 1:18 left to help the Wolfpack beat Liberty 15-14 on Saturday night, handing the Flames their first loss of the year.
It was a fitting finish for the Wolfpack (6-3), whose surging offense sputtered much of the night while the defense and special teams came through with big plays — particularly in the fourth quarter.
“Everything that's come at them, they've responded,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “People have doubted this football team all year. For us to now sit here with six wins and two (top-25 wins) says a lot about them.”
Liberty (8-1) was trying to earn a third victory against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent this year, all on the road. The Flames had their shot to extend the best start in program history, too, putting together a drive to give Barbir — who had kicked a 51-yard field goal to beat Virginia Tech earlier this season — a shot at the lead.
This time, it didn't work.
“We talked about it on the headsets and felt he earned that right,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said. “Obviously, now maybe we should have been more aggressive. We gave us a chance to win it with him. The kick looked real low.”
Jones said Barbir's kick hit him in the right elbow, setting off a sideline celebration for N.C. State.
“It was just a desperation block,” said Jones, who had blocked two punts this season. “We go in and I’m the jumper in it. And I just jumped as high as I could. I remember seeing the ball coming and just — boom — it hits me right here, in my elbow.
”I was like, ‘Oh I blocked it, I blocked it!’"
Zonovan Knight ran for two touchdowns to lead N.C. State, including the go-ahead 4-yard score with 6:53 left. That play was set up by a diving interception from true freshman reserve Aydan White.
Malik Willis threw for 172 yards and two touchdowns for Liberty but had three interceptions, two coming in the fourth quarter. He also ran for 44 yards as the Flames managed just 279 total yards.
Liberty: The Flames arrived seeking to follow up road wins against Syracuse and Virginia Tech, which had marked the football independent's first victories against ACC teams after losing their first eight matchups. They scored a big touchdown with 19 seconds left before halftime, then went ahead 14-7 midway through the third quarter only to see the Wolfpack respond.
“Felt like our kids played hard, played their guts out for us and I felt like we didn’t have a good enough plan for them to score enough points,” Freeze said. “It’s just not a good feeling, but I’m proud of them, proud of the way they fought.”
N.C. State: That's two wins in a row for the Wolfpack, who beat Florida State last weekend after a lopsided loss at rival North Carolina and a shootout loss to No. 12 Miami. N.C. State won despite having 14 penalties for 123 yards and struggling offensively after scoring 79 points in its previous two games.
Liberty's loss could drop the Flames out of the AP Top 25 after three consecutive weeks that marked the program's first appearance.
Liberty’s 279 yards were by far its lowest total this season, surpassing the previous mark of 357 yards against North Alabama.
“It’s all on me,” Willis said. “I take the blame for that loss. I take the blame for turning the ball over and putting us in terrible situations where the defense was picking me up every time."
GRIND IT OUT
Knight also had a first-half touchdown run and ran for 96 yards, while Ricky Person Jr. added 83 yards on the ground. That was part of a 167-yard rushing effort that largely had to carry the Wolfpack’s offense with Bailey Hockman getting nothing going consistently in the passing game.
CARRYING THE OFFENSE
With N.C. State's offense fighting for every yard, the defense and special teams came up with a key third-quarter sequence that proved critical.
Hockman's quick-kick punt on a stalled offensive drive was downed at the Liberty 3-yard line, then Isaiah Moore stuffed Peytton Pickett on the next play for a safety with 3:34 left in the period.
Liberty: The Flames return home to host Massachusetts on Friday.
N.C. State: Syracuse hosts the Wolfpack in ACC play next Saturday.
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