LYNCHBURG, Va. — As it turned out, it wasn’t the No. 21-ranked UL Ragin’ Cajuns with a motivation issue at all.
“When we’re underdogs, our crew is going to be ready,” coach Billy Napier said with a sly smile after his team’s 42-14 road win over Liberty on Saturday.
Leading the charge was a defensive front that was hungry.
Hungry to show its worth against a Liberty quarterback in Malik Willis who was soaking up all the pregame talk as a projected first-round draft choice.
Hungry to extend the program-best winning streak to 10.
LYNCHBURG, Va. — No one wanted to hear the news from Thursday morning when UL sophomore offensive guard O’Cyrus Torrence suffered a concussion…
And just plain hungry to silence any remaining doubters of this squad.
“It was a crazy night,” said defensive end Andre Jones, who had four tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the win. “(Willis) was a task, for real. I’ve got a whole lot of respect for him, a whole lot of respect for him. It was a big deal tonight.
“It’s getting toward the end of the season, we’re already motivated to finish this the right way, but yeah, that was like a bonus right there.”
Speaking of bonuses down the road, talented players like outside linebacker Chauncey Manac were extra motivated to play in Saturday’s game with all the NFL eyes on Willis.
“Yes, you hear conversations like that, all I think about is a money game, man,” said Manac, who became the first Cajun with four sacks in a game since Rodney Hardaway in 2007. “That’s what I try to do, go out here and feed my family.
“Yes sir, yes sir. You’ve got to stop the run and then you can have some fun.”
Considering the circumstances, it might have been the most fun UL defenders like Jones and Manac have ever had on a football field. Manac had two sacks against Liberty two years ago and now six in two games.
“Just being relentless,” Manac said. “I knew if I got a good pass rush, I felt like I could beat them. I felt like they couldn’t stop me.”
Overall, the defense collected seven sacks, recovered three fumbles, broke up six passes and intercepted three passes. It was the most turnovers since 2005 against Northwestern State.
“I felt like we roughed (Willis) up early to be honest with you,” Napier said. “I felt like his head was on a swivel. That’s always a part of the plan, but certainly when you play a quarterback like this, it’s part of the plan.”
The highlight of the defense’s impact on the game might have been Liberty’s drive late in the second quarter. After seemingly scoring on a Willis run, the Flames were flagged for holding, and then another hold, and then a sack, and then another sack.
“It is what it is,” Napier said. “We rushed and they held. That happened throughout the night. I think they had trouble blocking us.”
LYNCHBURG, Va. — Liberty’s 15-game home winning streak is over … with an exclamation point.
By the time the drive ended, Liberty was punting from UL’s 44 after first-and-goal at the 2.
“It just showed all the hard work we’ve put up and all the chemistry that’s been built up,” Jones said. “Everybody was on the same page. Just because you didn’t get the sack, you’re helping to get the sack because you’re staying where you’re supposed to be at. It’s a team thing.”
UL’s defensive effort was so dominant at times that Liberty coach Hugh Freeze wondered after the contest if it was his team that lacked motivation in the matchup, despite bringing a 15-game home winning streak into the game.
“I've got to find a way to make sure that our kids are better prepared to play,” Freeze said. “I told them in there it's like we're independent, we're bowl eligible and we don't have to work hard or something.
“It was something off (Saturday) I felt like for sure. Now, give credit to Louisiana and Billy and his guys. They did a good job. We certainly were not our best tonight.”
As for Napier’s Cajuns, it’s pretty obvious they’re just too close to achieving their goal to allow any quarterback, road trip or underdog role to derail them.
“That just gives us a little extra motivation,” Manac said. “We already know what we’re capable of, so when people doubt us, it’s just a little extra motivation for us.”