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Western Carolina’s first game of season doesn’t go well as No. 22 Liberty rolls

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Malik Willis found plenty of running lanes early in the season. That’s now letting the Liberty quarterback show off his passing skills.

Willis threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two more scores, leading No. 22 Liberty over Western Carolina 58-14 on Saturday.

Liberty (8-0) won its 10th straight game and remained second behind Notre Dame for the nation’s longest active winning streak.

Willis has accounted for 16 touchdowns in the past three games, including 12 in the air. The former Auburn backup threw for just three TDs in the Flames’ first five games.

“I think Malik’s just playing within the system and making the right read,” coach Hugh Freeze said. “ … He’s reading the progression pretty well and throwing catchable, accurate balls.”

Playing their first game of the season, the Catamounts (0-1) trailed 14-7 early in the second quarter. Liberty then scored four straight touchdowns in the next 14 minutes.

“I just felt like after the first quarter we just needed to lock in more,” Liberty wide receiver CJ Daniels said. “After we locked in, we got going.”

Willis accounted for all four of those scores that helped the Flames take a commanding 42-7 lead.

He completed 14 of 19 passes with touchdown strikes of 44, 40 and 83 yards. He scored on runs of 11 and 43 yards.

“They have one of the best quarterbacks in the country right now and got some talented receivers that we just couldn’t hold up against,” said Western Carolina coach Mark Speir, an A. L. Brown graduate.

Willis’ 43-yard touchdown run gave him 1,011 career rushing yards. He has tallied 700 yards on the ground this season after spending the 2017 and 2018 seasons as Jarrett Stidham’s backup at Auburn. “We continue to do really good in the run game, but we have gotten opportunities to air the ball out and we just have to take those opportunities when we get them,” Willis said. “It’s just taking what the defense gives you and that’s part of this offense.”

Kevin Shaa caught two passes for a career-high 137 yards and a touchdown. Daniels added 96 yards and two touchdowns on two catches.

The Catamounts used two quarterbacks in their season debut, and both produced a touchdown. Will Jones connected on a 9-yard pass to Clayton Bardall in the second quarter, and Mark Wright scored on a designed run from 3 yards out late in the third quarter.

The Catamounts played their first game in 357 days after they ended last season with a 66-3 loss at Alabama on Nov. 23, 2019. They are now 0-58 against FBS competition and 0-6 against FBS Top 25 teams.

The Flames entered the Top 25 poll for the first time in program history at No. 25 on Nov. 1 and moved up three spots to No. 22 after their dramatic win at Virginia Tech. Six games involving Top 25 teams were either postponed or canceled this weekend,

Western Carolina next travels to Eastern Kentucky while Liberty is at N.C. State on Saturday.

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