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UL defensive players linebacker Chauncey Manac (17), defensive lineman Zi'Yon Hill (4) and linebacker Kris Moncrief (6), shown here celebrating a big sack against Appalachian State earlier this season, are hoping to track down Liberty quarterback Malik Willis in Saturday's road game in Virginia.

The UL Ragin’ Cajuns are just a few weeks away from playing for the Sun Belt Conference championship at Cajun Field, but that's on the back burner for now.

First there’s the matter of an intriguing non-conference road encounter with the Liberty Flames at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“This is an extremely highly respected program in Group of Five football,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. You’ve got to put the blinders on and think about the matchups in this game.”

The Cajuns carry a school-record nine-game winning streak to Virginia, while the Flames were off last week after falling to 7-3 with a 27-14 loss to Ole Miss on Nov. 6.

Liberty has a school-record 15-game home winning streak on the line.

Stopping Liberty starts with containing quarterback Malik Willis, who has almost 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 31 total touchdowns.

“It’s hard to get the guy on the ground,” Napier said of Willis. “He’s a big, strong player. He’s got contact balance. He’s very much a running back playing quarterback. He also has an unbelievable arm and can throw it accurately in all areas of the field.

“That’s kind of who he reminds me of — Jalen Hurts. The guy can go the distance. He’s like a running back there playing quarterback who can throw it.”

Willis is the team’s leading rusher with 755 yards. He’s actually gained 1,005 yards on the ground, but 38 sacks have resulted in 250 yards in losses.

Napier said his defense has experience with running quarterbacks, especially former Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas and Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts.

“In our history here, we’ve had to play multiple players that are like this,” he said. “The kid at App was a tough guy to get on the ground. We’ve got experience playing players like this.

“This will be no different than those matchups in the past. Think about Georgia Southern the last couple of years. We’re talking about that type of athlete — just bigger and stronger.”

Freshman wide receiver Demario Douglas is the top target for the Flames with 42 receptions for 618 yards and five touchdowns, followed by CJ Daniels with 27 catches for 463 yards and seven touchdowns.

“He’s a great run after catch player,” Napier said of Douglas. “He’s a vertical threat. They do a really good job of featuring the guy. He’s a guy they’re intentional about getting the ball to.”

Defensively, the Flames are giving up only 18.7 points and 316.6 yards a contest.

“Not many people have moved it and not many people have scored, including Ole Miss, which has one of the top five offenses in the country,” Napier said. “Defensively, they understand what they’re doing. They’re fundamentally sound and they’re well-coached.”

The Cajuns counter with an offense coming off a 35-point performance at Troy. UL will get running back Emani Bailey back, as well as linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill.

Bailey has missed the past three games, and his return will take some of the running workload off Montrell Johnson and Chris Smith.

UL needs to be prepared to put points on the board. In their last eight home wins, the Flames have scored at last 40 points in each game.

"We always have potential to blow a game open," UL offensive tackle Max Mitchell said. "I have no doubt in my mind that we can go score."

That doesn't mean that Liberty's defense is incapable of creating a chess match.

"They're D-line does a bunch of junk," Mitchell said. "Their tackles are going to be a challenge this week with their ends. They're not insane athletes or anything, but they do some things that give offensive linemen some trouble in general with their scheme. Nothing insane, but we'll definitely have to be on our P's and Q's with our communication this week."


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.