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2021 LendingTree Bowl Recap: Liberty 56, Eastern Michigan 20

It was a night to forget for EMU, who couldn’t stop the big play.

LendingTree Bowl - Liberty v Eastern Michigan Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

So before I get into the recap, I want to get something off my chest. Even though Eastern Michigan has lost all of the bowl games they have gone to in the Creighton era, I think they are in a much better place now than they were before the moment Creighton stepped onto the basketball court to be announced as the new football coach. Listening to him then, he sounded like something special.

I honestly didn’t think he would be Eastern Michigan’s coach eight years after that point. I thought one of the bigger programs would have hired him as often happens to the Group Five schools. Maybe that’s because the MAC championship has eluded him. Or maybe that’s because a bowl victory has eluded him. Or maybe he wants to stay where he can make a difference. I’m pretty sure he has more stability here than he would have at a bigger program. He’s certainly not under the same microscope as the big media folks are more interested in Michigan or Michigan State than Eastern, Western or Central. Anyway, that being said, let me do the recap.

When I wrote my preview a couple of days ago, it looked like Eastern Michigan would match up fairly well against Liberty. I saw two teams that were in very similar places in life. They both had the same record. They both had roughly the same stats, even, but sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole story.

When I look at the box score for today’s game, there is one stat that stands out in my mind, Liberty had 233 rushing yards to Eastern Michigan’s 125 rushing yards. Some of that might have been due to Eastern Michigan having to play catch up, but a lot of it seems to be due to Eastern Michigan not being able to get its running game off the ground some times. And it seems to me that teams that are able to run the ball are able to dictate the terms of the game, a respectable running game opens up the passing game.

Eastern Michigan would strike first by capping off a drive that took nearly half of the first quarter with a Chad Ryland field goal. That would be the only time that Eastern Michigan would have the lead. The Flames would strike back quickly with an 85-yard drive that was capped off by a 54-yard pass from Malik Willis to DJ Stubbs. That would be followed by Skyler Thomas interception off a tipped pass in the backfield, which would be run in for a touchdown. The ensuing extra point was missed, making it 13 to 3 in favor of the Flames.

Eastern Michigan would get on the board after a 75-yard drive capped by a two yard run by Samson Evans for a touchdown. That would be the last time until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter that Eastern Michigan would score.

Liberty struck gold again early in the second quarter after a 34-yard run by T.J. Green. That was followed up by an 88-yard drive capped by a 20 yard pass from Malik Willis to Johnny Huntley. That would be followed up by a rushing touchdown from Malik Willis to finish the half.

The second half would be opened by another rushing touchdown by Malik Willis to make the score 39-10. A field goal and another touchdown would make the score 49-10 at the end of the 3rd quarter. Liberty’s backup quarterback Johnathan Bennett would throw a bomb to Kevin Shaa on his first play from scrimmage to make the score 56-10.

When the clock struck 5:26 left in the fourth quarter, Eastern Michigan would get a Chad Ryland field goal to make the score 56 to 13, ending a 43-point unanswered points streak by Liberty. EMU defensive back Jeff Hubbard managed to nab a pick-six from about 30 yards out to provide the final tally of the game.

As I was watching the game, it seemed like Eastern Michigan struck the colors sometime towards the end of the third quarter. That is the first time in a while that I’ve seen Eastern Michigan give up, but I guess they didn’t have much else to do.

Liberty was able to bottle up their receivers to getting almost zero yards after the catch. Despite the disparity in the lines, it seemed like Liberty did a fairly good job bottling up the Eastern Michigan run game. And despite giving up 50 sacks in the season, Liberty did a good job of protecting their quarterback. Eastern Michigan had promising pressures throughout the game on Malik Willis, and they only had two sacks to show for it. As a result, Eastern Michigan is still looking for their first bowl win since 1987, and Liberty has become the second team to win its first three bowl games in the FBS.

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Eastern Michigan at Liberty
Malik Willis would be named the MVP of the bowl game.
Robert McDuffie-USA TODAY Sports