LYNCHBURG, Va. - Charleston Southern kept its Big South title aspirations alive with a 48-26 win over #24/25 Liberty on Saturday afternoon at Williams Stadium. It was CSU's third consecutive win over the Flames as the Buccaneers bounced back from a tough loss last week against Gardner-Webb to take the driver's seat for the conference's automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.
The Buccaneers (6-3, 3-1) outgained the Flames (6-4, 4-1) 514-331 and topped 300 yards rushing for the fourth time this season in the win. Shane Bucenell shook off a pair of first half interceptions to record 235 total yards and four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) as the Bucs came out of the gates displaying emotion and intensity that was missing in their previous outing.
"We wanted to come out and play with an intensity that we felt had been missing for a while," said CSU head coach Jamey Chadwell. "We knew that we needed to get off to a good start and get our guys playing excited. We were able to overcome those turnovers early and really get rolling with some big plays in the first half."
CSU overcame three first half interceptions to hold the 31-6 lead at the half. Bucenell connected on touchdown passes to Kameron Brown, Travay Hatten, and Mike Holloway over the first 30 minutes, while Ben Robinson added a 28-yard touchdown run to pace the Bucs to a quick start offensively. Defensively, the Bucs allowed 78 yards in the first half and limited Liberty to three points off the CSU turnovers.
The renewed focus on the field was a good sight for Chadwell as the Buccaneers' title hopes remain firmly in CSU's hands.
"It was a huge disappointment last week," Chadwell said. "We could be sitting here with a championship trophy, but that wasn't the plan. Sometimes you need something that brings back focus to where it needs to be. We've had a long season with a lot of things going on and the loss last week allowed us to refocus to get back to playing our best football each week."
With the win, next week's game against Kennesaw State will decide the conference's automatic bid into the 2016 FCS Playoffs. A CSU win grants Charleston Southern the bid, while a Buccaneer loss to the Owls grants Liberty the Big South's automatic berth into the postseason. Kickoff at Buccaneer Field on ESPN3 is set for 11:45 a.m.
The opportunity for a second Big South title and the importance of next weekend is not lost on Chadwell and the Bucs.
"Having a chance to win back-to-back Big South titles is obviously something we've never done in the history of our program," Chadwell said. "The chance to do it at our home is huge. We think we're one of the best teams in the country and we'll have to play like it next week. We're going to play a really good Kennesaw State team that is coming down to try to play for a share of the title too. We've got to make sure we keep the intensity and carry it forward."
Mike Holloway led CSU's rushing attack with his fifth 100-yard effort of the season. Holloway picked up 107 yards on nine carries and was aided by a 76-yard carry midway through the fourth quarter setting up a Tyler Tekac 28 yard field goal. The Bucs rushed for 344 yards in the contest with Robinson (six carries, 71 yards, one touchdown), Bucenell (11 carries, 65 yards, one touchdown), and Robert Mitchell all finding the end zone on the ground.
Through the air, Bucenell was 10-for-16 for 170 yards and three touchdowns. Bucenell connected with Hatten from 11 yards out on an out-and-under route to put the Bucs on the board in the first quarter. He added second quarter touchdown passes to Holloway (28 yards) and Brown (45 yards) for his third multi-touchdown game of the season.
Defensively the Bucs as a unit were in the backfield a majority of the game as CSU forced Liberty freshman quarterback Stephen Calvert to a 15-for-36 passing night. Calvert was sacked by five different Buccaneers and CSU recorded eight tackles for loss led by Anthony Ellis' 3.5 in the game. Calvert threw for 261 yards with 148 coming in the fourth quarter after the outcome had been decided.
An interception on CSU's second play of the scrimmage led to Liberty points. Alex Probert connected on a 32-yard field goal to put the Flames on the board after the Bucs defense forced a three-and-out following the Chris Turner interception.
Following back-to-back three-and-outs by the defenses, Charleston Southern got on the board as Bucenell found Hatten on an out-and-under pattern from 11 yards out. Robinson sparked the seven play, 67-yard drive with a 17-yard carry on the first play, while Bucenell connected on first down passes to Brown and Hatten along the way to the CSU score.
Liberty answered with another Probert field goal, this one from 39 yards, as the Flames utilized a 13-play, 51-yard drive to narrow the margin to 7-6.
Darius Hammond swung the momentum back in CSU's favor with his first long return of the night. Hammond caught the kickoff at the goal line and broke several tackles on his way up the right sideline before getting shoved out of bounds at the Liberty 17. The 83-yard return was CSU's longest of the season. The drive resulted in a 38-yard field goal from Tyler Tekac to give the Bucs the 10-6 lead.
CSU scored touchdowns on each of its next three possessions to take the 31-6 lead into the half. Robinson capped off a six-play, 75-yard drive with a 28 yard carry up the middle for the first score. Bucenell found Holloway on a slant pattern from 20 yards out to end a seven-play, 54 yard on CSU's next possession. Following a Shadarius Hopkins interception, Bucenell connected with Brown on a deep post over the middle with Brown jumping over the Liberty defensive back to haul in the 45-yard touchdown pass to cap the first half scoring.
Bucenell and the Bucs did not let up at the start of the second half. After the Bucs defense forced a three-and-out on Liberty's opening possession, Bucenell took the snap and went untouched up the middle for a 57-yard touchdown to increase CSU's lead to 38-6 less than a minute into the third quarter.
CSU added a Robert Mitchell one-yard touchdown run and a Tekac 28 yard field goal to cap the Bucs' scoring. Calvert connected on late touchdowns to Kendall Couamin, B.J. Farrow, and Dante' Shells to bring the final margin to 48-26.