New Mexico Non-Conference Preview: Liberty Flames
The Lobos will finish their non-conference slate against FBS newcomer Liberty. What can New Mexico expect from the Flames?
Liberty won’t roll over against New Mexico.
Location: Lynchburg, VA
Mascot: Sparky the Eagle
Conference: None (FBS Independent)
2016 Record: 6-5 (2-3 Big South)
Head Coach: Turner Gill (66-78 overall, 41-29 at Liberty). You may remember Gill as the coach who delivered a surprise MAC title in Buffalo, or you may remember him as one of Kansas’s many post-Mark Mangino flops. If you haven’t paid attention recently, though, Gill has provided the Flames a fairly steady hand at the wheel since 2012.
Though they had just one appearance in the FCS playoffs in that time, the Flames have also finished with a winning record every year of his tenure and finished tied for first in the Big South four times in six seasons. Now that he’s piloting an FBS squad again, he’ll have a chance to make some waves against a fairly challenging independent schedule.
WR Antonio Gandy-Golden
Gandy-Golden finished 15th among FCS receivers with 1,066 yards, averaging over 15 yards per catch and leading the Flames with ten receiving touchdowns. At 6’4″ and 200, he is a big target that will likely see a lot of action against the Lobos’ capable but smaller corners.
DL Juwan Wells
Wells has been a disruptive force for the Flames almost from the jump, having collected 29.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks across three seasons. He was a first-team all-Big South selection in 2016 and a second-team choice last fall, so the New Mexico offensive line will need to be prepared.
K Alex Probert
The sophomore kicker was another of Liberty’s second-team all-conference picks last year, but he may end up playing a key role looking ahead to the field position battle between these teams. Just 39% of Probert’s kickoffs last year went for a touchback, and while he went 10-of-11 on field goal attempts within 40 yards, he was just 4-of-9 on kicks of 40 yards or more. If the New Mexico defense can force some opportune stops, they could force Liberty into some uncomfortable decisions on how much they trust their special teams.
CB Jeremy Peters
Though it remains to be seen just how much a reset of the #Throwbos will factor into new coordinator Calvin Magee’s attack, they may want to consider avoiding the senior Peters as often as possible. Like Probert, Wells and Gandy-Golden, Peters also earned a second-team all-Big South nod with three interceptions, four tackles for loss and eight passes defended.
The Lobos might want to get ready for a shootout. Liberty quarterback Steven Calvert was dangerous when he was on last year, and he has a wealth of seasoned pass-catchers at his disposal, not only Gandy-Golden but also B.J. Farrow (who caught ten touchdowns himself last fall), Damian King and Cephas Reddick. They’ll need to sort out the running game after their leading rusher’s departure, but Frankie Hickson and Kentory Matthews, the latter of whom averaged over seven yards per carry in 31 attempts, might be an adequate one-two punch.
If New Mexico can re-establish their once dangerous ground game, they could exploit Liberty’s soft spots on defense and keep the Flames at bay. Wells is a proven athlete in the front seven, but questions about elsewhere. Elisha Mitchell and Ralfs Rusins do give the retooled line some FBS-quality size and Brandon Tillmon, who spent time at safety last fall, is expected to move to linebacker after finishing second on the team in tackles. Opponents averaged 5.5 yards per carry against the Flames in 2017, which is something of which the Lobos have surely taken notice.
At first glance, this seems like one of the more unpredictable games in the Mountain West’s overall non-conference slate. Both teams face some fairly prominent unknowns, but the New Mexico running game should be up to the task against a Liberty defense which struggled with what the Lobos have done best in the past few years. Expect a close, high-octane affair, but expect that the home team’s fans will go home happy, too. New Mexico 38, Liberty 35