By Justin Caudell
Down 19-7 after three frames, Western Carolina scored nine unanswered points in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 13, but it was not enough to pick off Liberty University as the Flames won 19-16.
The Catamounts had possession of the ball with less than two minutes to go in the game, but were not able to score.
Liberty took an early lead in the game, 3-0, after their drive stalled at the WCU 19-yard line. Red-shirt freshman Ben Shipps booted the ball 29-yards to split the uprights for the Flames.
The lead was short lived though as the Catamounts stuck before the end of the first quarter. Taking over near midfield at their own 46 yard line, Western moved 54-yards in five plays to take a 7-3 advantage after red-shirt freshman Quan Warley ran in from 15 yards out. Warley sprung by blocks on the left side, including one thrown by red-shirt sophomore Adam Hearns on the edge, to get the score.
Liberty closed the gap to a point with 0:33 left in the first half after a second field goal by Shipps provided for a 7-6 tally. The Flames had a chance to tilt the game in their favor earlier in the second quarter with a few minutes left, but WCU red-shirt freshman Chris Everett blocked their fieldgoal attempt.
Following the break, Liberty made up for their missed scoring opportunity though after scoring on their first two possessions. They went 86 yards in 12 plays following the kickoff to go up 13-7 with 8:44 to go in the third quarter and they scored later in the frame after capitalizing on a Western fumble. With 45 seconds remaining in the third, the Flames increased their lead to 19-7 after a 2-yard run by quarterback Brock Smith. Liberty’s extra point was blocked by WCU sophomore Mitchell Bell.
The Catamounts responded to the surging Flames on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Senior quarterback Andy Horn connected with red-shirt sophomore Marquel Pittman on a 78-yard, pass-and-run to pull within six points, 19-13. An extra point kick failed to make the upright by junior Blake Bostic.
Western’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession to aid WCU’s comeback.
After a touchback punt and procedure penalty, the Catamounts drove 54-yards in 12 plays, including a 19-yard strike from Horn to Hearns on a fourth and five from the Liberty 26 yard line. However, with WCU looking at a first and goal from the seven-yard line, consecutive losses on a nine-yard sack and a delay of game penalty pushed the Catamounts back to the 21. Back-to-back incomplete passes forced Western to kick a 38-yard field goal, which was the first career goal for Bostic to pull within three, 19-16 with 7:12 left in the game.
After the WCU defense held the Flames to one first down down on the next possession, the Catamounts began on their own nine-yard line with 3:34 showing on the game clock.
With the game on the line, the drive nearly ended on fourth and three, but Horn found Warley for six yards. A pass interference call against Liberty moved Western up to their own 37. But inside the final two minutes, three-consecutive incomplete passes, including the last on fourth and six, ended the Catamounts’ rally to pull off the upset – losing 19-16.
“This was a wasted opportunity tonight,” said head coach Dennis Wagner. “Our efficiency on offense was not there at critical times. We missed several scoring opportunities: we missed a field goal, we were inside the 20 twice and couldn’t get the ball in the end zone, dropped a ball and had a fumble. There were a lot of opportunities to win that football game but in the same instance I thought our defense played really well, but they were on the field too long in the second quarter. It was a hard fought football game but we did not finish the way we needed to.
“We had the ball with 2:43 to go in the game and couldn’t find a way to win – that is frustrating and something we have to fight to overcome. Liberty is a good football team but we had our chances,” added Wagner.
By the numbers, Liberty led in total offense with 338 yards to Western’s 247. The Catamounts were limited to 19 rushing yards, compared to the Flames 190. Through the air, Smith completed 16 of 26 passes for 148 yards for Liberty, while Horn completed 18 of 33 passes for 228 yards for Western.
The Catamounts, who are 1-2 on the season following the loss to the Flames, traveled to Clinton, South Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 20 and will begin Southern Conference play on Saturday, Sept. 27 at The Citadel. They return to Cullowhee on Oct. 4 for a conference game versus Samford.