MOBILE, Ala. (AP) – Malik Willis showed in the LendingTree Bowl what NFL scouts have been raving about.
The Liberty quarterback passed for 231 yards and accounted for five touchdowns and the Flames rolled over Eastern Michigan 56-20 on Saturday night at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
A potential NFL first-round pick, Willis completed 13 of 24 passes, with touchdown strikes of 54 yards to DJ Stubbs, 20 yards to Johnny Huntley and 3 yards to Demario Douglas. Willis also ran for 58 yards, with touchdowns of 2 and 35 yards.
The Flames (8-5) improved to 3-0 in bowls, tying Appalachian State for the best postseason start by an FBS team.
“That’s Malik Willis’ style,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said. “Making plays with his feet, making good throws, explosive plays, smiling on the sideline, giving credit to everybody else and just finishing with great humility and leadership. He’ll be missed on The Mountain for sure.”
Liberty also got a defensive touchdown in the first quarter on Skyler Thomas’ 27-yard interception return. Thomas deflected a short pass by Ben Bryant, caught the ball out and ran to the end zone.
Eastern Michigan (7-6) pulled to 13-10 on Samson Evans’ 2-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, but surrendered three straight touchdowns to close out the half and 43 straight points at one stretch. T.J. Green also ran for a 34-yard score in the second quarter, in addition to those touchdowns in which Willis had a hand.
Willis had a 35-yard touchdown run with 11:09 left in the third, putting the Flames up 39-10. Brayden Beck added a 43-yard field goal with 7:08 remaining in the quarter to make it 42-10.
“(Winning) was the most important thing to me,” Willis said. “That’s the reason why we play. I didn’t want to end the season with a loss. That would have hurt my heart. To be in a bowl game for the third year in a row in our third year in FBS, that means so much, not only to us as a team, but to our university and the people that support us. … It’s not just about us. We take pride in it as a university.”
Willis’ 3-yard TD pass to Douglas put Liberty on top 49-10. He sat out most of the fourth quarter, with back-up quarterback Johnathan Bennett throwing a 64-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Shaa for a 56-10 lead with 10:58 remaining.
“He’s good,” Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said about Willis. “We’ve got some pretty good athletes and it’s really hard to bring him down. It wasn’t even bringing him down, as much as just getting to him, actually getting hands on him. Throws a beautiful ball. And just the little bit of time that I was able to be around him, he just seems like a real class act. But yeah, he’s, super-talented.”
Eastern Michigan’s Chad Ryland hit a 43-yard field goal – his second of the game – with 5:32 left to make it 56-13. Ryland also hit a 27-yard field goal in the first quarter to give the Eagles an early 3-0 lead.
The Eagles scored the game’s final points with 4:29 left, when Jeff Hubbard intercepted Bennett and returned the ball 34 yards for a touchdown.
Eastern Michigan simply had no answer for Willis and the Liberty offense, which clearly possessed more speed on the perimeter. The Eagles remain winless in bowl games since a 30-27 victory over San Jose State in the 1989 California Bowl and fall to 1-4 all-time in the postseason. … Liberty dominated in every phase except in the kicking game, with three failed extra points (actually four, with one wiped out by penalty). Willis will return to Mobile in February for the Reese’s Senior Bowl, the annual NFL draft showcase, which also takes place at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
Eastern Michigan started just five seniors on Saturday, though quarterback Ben Bryant was one of them. The Cincinnati transfer passed for 3,121 and 14 touchdowns in 2021. Tight end Thomas Odukoya is considered a mid-round NFL draft prospect, at 6-foot-6 and 263 pounds particularly adept as a blocker. However, all three of EMU’s starting receivers, three of the top four running backs and eight starters on defense are eligible to return next season. … Liberty faces the tall task of replacing Willis, who has accounted for nearly 7,000 yards of total offense in two years as a starter. Bennett was the top back-up in 2021, but threw just 33 passes in nine games. Head coach Hugh Freeze is set to return after agreeing in November to a contract extension through the 2028 season. The Flames are set to join Conference USA in 2023.