NC State trying to avoid being latest notch on Liberty’s belt

The 21st-ranked Flames come to Raleigh an underdog despite being a perfect 8-0

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis has led the Flames to an 8-0 record and into the Top 25. (Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via AP)

Nothing motivates a mid-major college football program quite like the opportunity to knock off one of the Power 5 big boys.

Dave Doeren knows all about that from his days coaching at Northern Illinois.

It’s a knowledge that makes him ever warier of his team’s upcoming opponent Liberty, now that he’s on the other side of the equation at NC State.

“That locker room is full of guys that felt like they could have played at a higher level,” Doeren said of the undefeated Flames, who come to Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday ranked No. 21 in the nation.

“Those kids will have a chip on their shoulder when they play a Power 5 team. They want to be noticed. They know that this is a chance to showcase not just their individual abilities but how they can play as a football team against teams that have Power 5 behind their name.”

This was supposed to be the one breather on the Wolfpack’s coronavirus-adjusted 2020 schedule, the only nonconference test among a string of 10 more meaningful ACC contests.

But somebody forgot to tell Liberty that it was only invited to earn a guarantee check.

If Doeren’s warnings aren’t enough to catch his players’ attention and keep them from taking the Flames lightly, then the list of opponents coach Hugh Freeze’s team has already beaten should. Among its victims on the way to an 8-0 record are ACC foes Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

“I know all of those guys when I was at Northern Illinois, they weren’t afraid of anybody,” Doeren said. “They were just excited to play the game, and I’m sure that is what we are going to get. We’re going to get a team that believes, for one, because they haven’t lost this year. They’re playing for a coach that knows how to win games.

“It’s going to be a very confident group, and it’s going to be a group that wants to prove themselves and an opportunity for them to do it on a bigger stage. For us, we have to acknowledge all those things that I just said. But at the end of the day, it’s really going to be about how we play.”

The Wolfpack (5-3, 5-3 ACC) regained some of its confidence last week with a 38-22 win against Florida State that broke a two-game losing streak.

Unlike the once-proud Seminoles, who started four freshmen on their offensive line and alternated two true freshmen at quarterback, Liberty is a veteran unit led by a dynamic triggerman in Malik Willis.

A transfer from Auburn, Willis ranks among the nation’s leaders while accounting for 24 touchdowns in eight games so far this season (nine rushing, 15 passing). He almost singlehandedly took down Virginia Tech two weeks ago by throwing for 217 yards, rushing for 103 and having a hand in four touchdowns in a 38-35 win in Blacksburg two weeks ago.

Willis’ dual-threat ability is similar to that of Miami’s D’Eriq King.

That’s a concern for Doeren, whose team had no answer for King’s passing or running in a recent loss to the Hurricanes.

“To this point in the season, you’re not going to see a lot of weaknesses in him,” Doeren said of Willis. “There’s not many quarterbacks that have that completion rate (67.8%) and that touchdown-to-interception rate (15-1) with those rushing yards (700).

“Obviously, the players that are around him are part of that, but there’s a lot of things that happen on a play that he makes on his own, which you saw from King. His ability to throw the ball down the field accurately is really impressive.”

While Doeren is working hard to make sure his team stays wary of Willis and the rest of the Flames, his counterpart at Liberty — who called State his team’s “toughest challenge to date” — is putting just as much effort into keeping his players focused on the task at hand rather than the national attention suddenly coming their way.

“As young as we are, to be in that heady stuff, in order to remain there in people’s minds there’s only one option, and that’s to win,” said Freeze, the former Ole Miss coach whose name is being mentioned as a candidate for the current opening at South Carolina. “Can you do that every single time in this game with the schedule we face and where we are right now? It’s hard and probably not, but who knows when that will end because we certainly are confident and we certainly believe that we’ve found a way to be perfect, 8-0.

“We’re going to enjoy the reality that we are in that heady stuff right now, but we also understand that stuff like that can come and go pretty quickly in this college football game if you’re not one of the blue bloods.”