It’s not often that a ranked team comes to Arkansas and is listed as a two-touchdown underdog, but that’s the case this weekend.
Mo. 23 Liberty (7-1) visits unranked Arkansas (5-3) Saturday at 3 p.m. inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium in a game that will be televised by the SEC Network.
The Flames only loss was a 37-36 one at Wake Forest when Liberty’s two-conversion try to win the game failed with 1:11 left.
Razorback head coach Sam Pittman believes he knows what he will see from head coach Hugh Freeze’s Flames this weekend.
“Their best game all year,” Pittman said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll have them ready, they had a bye week and they’ll have their best game all year. I expect a really close, tight game and hopefully we can make enough plays to win.”
It will be the first home game for Arkansas since Alabama downed the Razorbacks 49-26 back on Oct. 1.
This game is also the first of three straight home games for Arkansas with No. 15 LSU and No. 11 Ole Miss following Liberty into Fayetteville.
“Thank you Lord,” Pittman said. “It was time to get back home. Everybody says it but we truly have the greatest fans in the country and they want to see the Hogs play and we want to play in front of them, It’s a big deal for me, our staff and our team to play in front of the state of Arkansas. Big deal.
“So we’re really excited and we have three in a row. So obviously we need to win. Each win will pump up our fan base a little bit more and it’ll us win. They’ll help us win. If we’re fortunate enough to win on Saturday, I’m sure it’ll be a lot to do with the home crowd advantage.”
Liberty, who had Tennessee Titans’ NFL first round pick Malik Willis as its quarterback last season, blasted visiting BYU 41-14 on Oct. 22, a week after Arkansas went to Provo and downed the Cougars 52-35.
“We’re excited to play Liberty,” Pittman said. “They have a really good football team, play extremely hard, good talent. A lot of transfers on their team. Coach Freeze has done an outstanding job there. Ranked in the Top 25. Only loss to Wake Forest and they went for two and unfortunately for Liberty they didn’t make it or they’d be 8-0 right now.
“Really, really good football team, obviously beat BYU the week after we did bad. So, we know we have our work cut out for us.
Arkansas has won two straight games, including a 41-27 victory at Auburn last Saturday, after a three-game losing skid.
“We are enjoying being on this run even though it’s been two games, but we are enjoying that and we just have to continue to get better and we’ll have a fine week at practice,” Pittman said. “I’m sure we will.”
Liberty’s offense is averaging 422.3 yards total offense per game this season with 226.4 coming through the air and 195.9 on the ground.
Johnathan Bennett (6-0, 220) has started the last three games at quarterback for Liberty and has passed for 939 yards and 8 touchdowns (7 interceptions) and rushed for 111 yards and another score.
Kaidon Salter (6-1, 190, who started four of his team’s five games, has thrown for 778 yards and six TDs and ran for an additional 221 yards and two scores.
Salter was recruited by Arkansas, signed as an early enrollee with Tennessee and then was dismissed by the Vols after legal issues and ended up at Liberty.
Former Baylor and Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer, who was named the starter in late August, broke his hand in the first quarter of Liberty’s four-overtime, season-opening 29-27 win over Southern Mississippi.
“They’re both really good,” Pittman said of Bennett and Salter. “Obviously they’ve won games with both of them. They’re very similar in that they’re both athletic. Both have good arms. You know, Coach has got a decision. He’s the coach, he’s got a decision on what he wants to do, because certainly Bennett has been playing well.
“We’ll be prepared for both of them. I’m not going to tell you it’s an easy preparation, but they’re going to run their offense and both of them are really talented obviously. I’m not positive who they’ll play. I believe Brewer played three plays in their last game.”
Tailbacks Dee Dee Hunter (825 yards rushing, 8 TDs) and Shedro Lewis (333 yards, 7 TDs) form a solid duo.
“Well, they can run the ball,” Pittman said. “They’ve got two really good backs. They can run the ball. Obviously, the quarterback running is a major concern of ours.”
Arkansas, averaging 492.5 yards total offense per game (248 passing, 244.5 rushing) will see a Liberty defense that brings pressure.
It is one that limited Wake Forest (now 6-2) to just 21 yards rushing on 26 attempts.
“Let’s say this, I said to our staff, I think it’ll be a really good week for us (to practice) good-on-good, because even though they probably move more than we do on our d-line, they blitz more than we do,” Pitman said, “…They run a mint front, an odd front, a 4-down over front — the structure of their defense will help us, I think.
“Offensively, on the good-on-good, sometimes it’s irrelevant. You’re just getting the speed of the game. This one, I think, will help us. Certainly on our defense, I think what we do and what Liberty does certainly has some similarities, I think.”
Freeze, was previously head coach at Memphis Briarcest High School (1995-2004), Lambuth University (2008-2009) Arkansas State (2011) and Ole Miss (2012-2016) before taking over at Liberty in 2019.
Freeze, who was given an Ole Miss ultimatum in 2016 of resigning or be fired for violating the morals clause of his contract, is being mentioned as a possible head coaching candidate at Auburn to replace Bryan Harsin, who as fired on Monday.
“He’s going to have them believing because they should,” Pittman said. “I mean, they’re ranked 23, we’re not. They should be ranked 23. Again, they’re a two-point conversion away from probably top 20.”
Pittman said there are some characteristics of teams coached by Freeze.
“Defensively, they will hit you, they can tackle you,” Pittman said. “That was the same thing over at Ole Miss when he was there. Offensively, they’re going to have something that you haven’t seen. They are a well-oiled machine, they are physical and they’re a very disciplined team. He’s always had really disciplined football teams.
“Then special teams, they’ve got a couple of guys that are good returners. 3 (Demario Douglas) is a really good punt returner. He also returns kickoffs, as well… He’s really electric, I think.”