By Carey Phillips
Western Carolina’s football season, which was delayed from August due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will get underway Saturday when the Catamounts travel to nationally ranked Liberty.
Kickoff in Williams Stadium is at noon. The game will be available online on ESPN3.
The Flames (7-0) are ranked 22nd in the Associated Press and coaches polls.
They stayed undefeated Saturday with a 38-36 win over Virginia Tech on a 51-yard field goal with one second left. That marked Liberty’s second win over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent this year. The other was 38-21 over Syracuse on Oct. 17.
The Flames are an independent playing their second full season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Quarterback Malik Willis directs an up-tempo offense for Coach Hugh Freeze’s squad. He is averaging 100.5 yards rushing with seven touchdowns and has thrown for 1,339 yards and 12 TDs.
Other than Willis, Liberty’s top rusher is Joshua Mack, who is averaging 77.7 yards on the ground. The leading receiver is D.J. Stubbs, who is averaging 57 yards.
The teams have split the previous six meetings but have not played since 2008, a 19-16 Liberty win.
WCU Coach Mark Speir was pleased with what he saw in a recent intrasquad scrimmage.
“I thought that the effort and energy was really high,” he said. “Offensively, I thought that we moved the ball really well at times. The biggest problem that we had in our first scrimmage was that we turned the ball over too many times.”
Western’s pre-season depth chart lists Will Jones or Marcelo Rodriguez as the starting quarterback. Jones played in six games, including three starts, last year. He completed 62 of 97 passes for 443 yards. Rodriguez is a transfer from Southern Mississippi.
Running back Donnavan Spencer returns for the Cats, after leading the team with 530 rushing yards in 2019.
Expected starters at wide receiver are Daquan Patten, D.J. Thorpe and Caleb Ferguson. Patten led the team with 46 catches for 433 yards last season.
Offensive lineman Grady Thomas is one of 199 national semifinalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which goes to the top football scholar-athlete in the nation.
Other games on WCU’s fall schedule are Nov. 21 at Eastern Kentucky and Dec. 11 at North Carolina.
An eight-game Southern Conference season is planned for the spring semester starting Feb. 20.