The game was spiraling away from the Orange. Despite dominating for the better part of three quarters, Liberty had tied the game and was driving in the fourth quarter to take its first lead of the game. The Syracuse defense looked tired. The offense was struggling to move the ball on its last few possessions. The momentum was clearly on the side of the Flames. That is when the Syracuse defense dug deep and made game winning plays.
"I thought they were amazing, especially with the fourth down stop," head coach Dino Babers said after the game. "That was big. That was big. They could've kicked a field goal right there and they went for it. Wow...He (Malik Willis) is just a mack truck. He's tough to bring down. Our guys continuously found a way to get him down for the most part."
The fourth down stop was a fourth and goal from the Syracuse two yard line with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Liberty elected to go for it rather than kick a short field goal to take the lead. Liberty went to a quick outside quarterback run that looks like a speed option but functioned more like a power sweep with Willis showing no desire to pitch the ball. Willis got to the outside quickly, but as he looked to turn it up field and head for the goal line, he was met by Stefon Thompson. Thompson stood him up and allowed his teammates to swarm to bring Willis down for a one yard loss.
The play kept the game tied.
After Syracuse punted on its next drive, Liberty took over at its own 32 yard line with 4:21 remaining. Coming off of three straight long drives deep into Syracuse territory, there was little reason to believe they would not do so again. This time, though, a long drive would also run the clock out. Syracuse's defense looked gassed. The game was on the line.
On the second play of the possession, Willis dropped back to pass. He could not find anyone open and the pocket was collapsing so he escaped to his left. Willis did not see Cody Roscoe closing in from behind, who hit Willis just as Marlowe Wax did so from the front. That popped the ball loose and Mikel Jones dove on top to secure possession. Syracuse's offense would run the clock down from there to set up the 35-yard game winning field goal from Andre Szmyt.
"It was very important (to stop Willis)," Jones said. "I used it to my advantage. I was preparing up until an hour before the game. Just watching, seeing where he wants to go with the ball. I feel like that was very important. I feel like the whole defense did a good job watching film this week and knowing what to expect."
Jones was a key aspect of the defensive approach. He spied Willis for much of the night, racked up a team high eight tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and one massive fumble recovery.
"Mikel Jones, he's the guy," Babers said. "He's the guy. Use all capital letters, all caps Is that how the young people say it? All caps. He's the key to everything and he's definitely our quarterback on defense. With no equal. He's the guy."