Liberty QB Willis accounts for five touchdowns in rout of Eastern Michigan

Creg Stephenson
Associated Press

Mobile, Ala. — 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.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis

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.”

BOX SCORE: Liberty 56, Eastern Michigan 20

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 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 backup 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.