LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi rallied to within a touchdown of Liberty University in the second half, but Golden Eagles could not extinguish Malik Willis and the Flames.
Willis threw for six touchdowns and ran for a seventh Saturday afternoon as Liberty defeated the Golden Eagles 56-35 at Williams Stadium.
“Number seven (Willis) is a little bit of a magician,” said Tim Billings, USM’s interim head football coach.
USM quarterback Tate Whatley, starting in the place of starter Jack Abraham, ran for four touchdowns and threw for a fifth score in the final minute.
Whatley became the first Golden Eagle to run for four touchdowns in a game since Jalen Richard turned the trick against Old Dominion University in 2015.
“We struggled some offensively there in the first half, but once we got going in the second half, I thought we were just fine,” Billings said. “I thought Tate Whatley did a good job.”
But the day belonged to Willis, an Auburn University transfer, who came into the game having thrown three touchdowns in his four games behind center this season.
Saturday, Willis sparked the Flames (6-0), who fell behind 7-0 after USM took the opening possession of the game 73 yards for a score.
Liberty scored the next 35 points on five Willis' touchdown passes to take a 28-point halftime lead.
“The tough thing is, their quarterback is a really, really good football player,” Billings said. "Definitely, we had opportunities, but we couldn’t get off the field. We missed tackles or missed a sack, gave up the big play.
“We hadn’t played in three weeks, and we looked like we hadn’t played in three weeks, especially on defense.”
But the Golden Eagles (1-4) bowed up at the start of the second half, scoring three times on three Whatley runs to pull within 35-28 with 3 minutes, 27 seconds, left in the period.
“At halftime, the kids were pretty down about the way the first half had gone and ended,” Billings said. “We could have called it quits, but we didn’t, so now, there’s a glimmer of hope.”
Saturday, Willis quashed any comeback hopes USM might have harbored.
Willis threw his sixth touchdown pass of the game less than two minutes after Whatley’s final touchdown run, then added a 38-yard scoring run midway through the fourth quarter.
Liberty’s Joshua Mack scored on a 1-yrd run with 87 seconds left to play before Whatley and Jason Brownlee teamed on a 17-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds to play.
“I thought the kids played hard,” Billings said. "It’s like my mom used to say, ‘Do your chores and then you can go out and play.’ Well, we’ve been doing a lot of playing, but weren’t doing our chores.
“You can’t just can’t play hard; to be good, you’ve got to execute, and that’s where we’ve got to get better.”
The two teams combined for 953 yards total offense, as USM surrendered more than 500 yards total offense (537 yards) for the third time in five games.
USM finished with 416 total yards, including 215 yards rushing, with true freshman Frank Gore Jr. leading the way for third time in five games with 79 yards on 15 carries.
Whatley, who scored on runs of 16 yards, 10 yards, 4 yards and 1 yard, ran for 52 yards on 12 carries.
He also completed 15-of-26 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
Brownlee had five catches for 114 yards, marking the third consecutive week that he had topped the 100-yard receiving mark.
Brownlee has been among the Golden Eagles' stepping to the fore in the absence of Tim Jones, who was sidelined for a second consecutive game but has been hobbled for the past month since being injured during USM’s loss to Tulane on Sept. 26.
Willis completed 24-of-31 pass attempts for 345 yards and six touchdowns. He also was the game’s leading rusher with 97 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
Demarion Douglas had six catches for 115 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown and D.J Stubbs also had six catches for 71 yards.
Kevin Shaa had three catches for 53 yards, including touchdown catches of 39 yards and 11 yards, while Johnny Huntley had two catches for 10 yards and a score.
C.J. Daniels caught Willis' only TD pass of the second half, an 18-yarder in the third quarter that stopped USM’s unanswered scoring streak.
The Golden Eagles will host Rice University at 2 p.m. Saturday at Roberts Stadium.