CONWAY — It would seem that Coastal Carolina’s defensive woes are indeed a thing of the past.
The Chanticleers turned in their second dominating effort in as many weeks, and this time there was no qualifier or context needed. Playing against one of the Big South Conference’s top offenses – and the same program that scored 63 points when the teams met last year – the Chants stifled, swarmed, swatted and snatched their way to a 36-12 win over Liberty in their Homecoming clash at Brooks Stadium.
They grabbed three interceptions, held the Flames to a season-low 265 offensive yards and didn’t let the visitors into the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand.
And with that, these Chants (4-4, 2-1 Big South) are suddenly looking pretty formidable heading into the final month of the season.
“We’ve talked all along about how important it was to kind of keep progressing and take every day [one] at a time,” CCU head coach Joe Moglia said. “… I was so pleased with the effort that the defense put forward. With the defense struggling so much as they were in the beginning of the season, picking up a little bit and then [looking] like they took a big step backwards and then [to] hang in there and do a great job against VMI and another great job tonight, I’m certainly incredibly proud of that.”
Yes, the same Coastal defense that gave up 399 rushing yards and 684 yards overall in a humbling trip to Appalachian State last month, has looked like a force the last two weeks. After holding a struggling VMI team to 252 total yards and only 16 on the ground last weekend in a 34-7 win, the Chants managed to put together an even more impressive performance Saturday against a Liberty team (3-5, 2-1) that entered the day ranked second in the Big South in scoring (28.6 points per game) and total offense (averaging 446.7 yards).
“It’s all about doing what our coaches tell us to do,” sophomore linebacker Quinn Backus said. “... With [Liberty] embarrassing us last year, we used that as motivation and came out and played real physical.”
The news wasn’t all good for Coastal on Saturday. Senior quarterback Aramis Hillary took a hard hit with 7:51 left to play and had to be carted off the field and taken to the hospital with a neck injury. But he could move his limbs and Moglia was optimistic the injury was not severe.
Before leaving, Hillary was 13-of-21 passing for 113 yards and rushed 10 times for 87 yards in the win. Senior running back Jeremy Height had another big game with 99 yards and two touchdowns in 12 carries. And Backus led that defensive charge with a game-high 15 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception.
Junior cornerback LaDarius Hawthorne got it started, though.
The Chants got their first points when Hawthorne returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown in the opening minutes of the first quarter. Liberty quarterback Josh Woodrum’s pass had bounced off the chest of receiver Pat Kelly and into the air where Hawthorne snagged it and raced untouched down the sideline. It tied for the second-longest interception return in program history, and sophomore Austin Cain then took a direct snap into the end zone for the two-point conversion as Coastal jumped ahead 8-0.
“It really set the tone for the game because we were talking about it in the locker room that we [we’re] trying to pick the ball off a lot today,” Hawthorne said. “So when I picked the ball off, I just knew my teammates would be behind me when I turned around when I got in the end zone. So I know that really set the tone.”
Height would do his part to extend that margin with a 46-yard touchdown run up the middle in the final minutes of the second quarter and a 2-yard touchdown run midway through the third to push the Chants’ lead to 22-3. His second score came after he had moved the offense down the field with runs of 12 and 26 yards on that drive, and he is now averaging 7.3 yards per carry over the last three games while scoring five touchdowns in that span.
The 19-point lead in the third quarter was a stark change from the teams’ last meeting when Liberty built a 42-0 lead late in the first half last fall in Lynchburg, Va., on the way to a 63-27 win.
This time, the Flames managed only 98 yards in the first half and never threatened the Coastal lead thereafter.
The back-breaker for Liberty came early in the fourth quarter when Hillary scrambled for 19 yards on a third-and-14 play from the Chants’ 10. He would soon follow with a 41-yard pass to junior DeMario Bennett and later a 3-yard touchdown strike to senior Chris Presley to make it 29-6 and peak Coastal’s lead.
Senior cornerback Dontavais Johnson and Backus contributed interceptions later in the fourth quarter to further punctuate the impressive performance. The crowd was sparse Saturday due to the rainy weather, but the Coastal fans who made it saw the Chants’ best game of the season.
“We still have a lot to work on,” Height said. “But it’s getting better each week.”
The Chants now have three games left – all against teams with .500 or losing records – and in addition to taking care of their own business, they will need somebody to knock off league-leading Stony Brook at some point if they’re going to have a chance at the conference championship.
The most likely team to do that would be this same Liberty squad, so they’ll now hope the Flames can right themselves before meeting the Seawolves in two weeks.
“I think Stony Brook is an outstanding, an outstanding football team. An outstanding football team,” Moglia said. “But anything can happen. … A fumble goes the wrong way or they get a couple of pick-sixes, that type of thing, they can beat Stony Brook. But it’s an upset. It’s an upset, but we’ll be rooting for them to do it, absolutely.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.