CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern squares off against Liberty on Saturday with its Big South Conference title and FCS Playoff hopes on the line. Kickoff at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va., is slated for 3:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN3.
CSU (5-3, 2-1 Big South) is bidding to snap Liberty's (6-3, 4-0 Big South) five-game winning streak and deny the Flames the outright conference championship. A Bucs' victory and a win over Kennesaw State at home next Saturday would give Jamey Chadwell's squad a share of the league crown and the automatic bid to the playoffs. There's no mistaking a sense of urgency for a CSU club hungry for another crack at the 24-team playoff.
"Now they realize there's not that much left – its win or done," Chadwell said. "We've talked a lot this week already about we're gonna see what kind of character our guys have. Are we gonna fight and keep fighting? I liked how they've responded to the (Gardner-Webb) loss. They've not dwelled on it."
"We're playing a team that's gunning for us and playing in an environment that will be great," Chadwell continued. "It's a huge challenge and it'll be tough for us to win. We need to execute and play at a high level in all phases to put ourselves in position."
The Bucs faced a must-win in their last trip to Williams Stadium and came away with a 38-36 triumph that snapped an eight-game losing streak in Lynchburg. CSU needed that victory to keep its at-large playoff chances alive. Unlike two years ago, CSU remains in control of its own destiny to play Thanksgiving weekend and into December.
If CSU is to win its third straight contest over Liberty, it will need to get its offense back in gear. Several missed opportunities for big plays in the passing game cost the Bucs in last week's 17-10 setback to Gardner-Webb. CSU has totaled over 1,000 yards of offense against Liberty's defense over the last two meetings. Despite four turnovers in the 2014 matchup, CSU still totaled single-game program records (against Division I foes) in rushing (359 yards) and total offense (576 yards).
Senior left tackle Erik Austell is one of CSU's four captains that believe the Bucs have hit the reset button in the wake of the Gardner-Webb loss.
"Obviously Saturday didn't go the way we wanted it to but we've played really well with our backs up against the wall," Austell said. "It's kind of like a wakeup call, maybe, to the young guys that you can't just show up and win. We've put the work in this week and now we need to go take care of business."
Standing in CSU's way is a Liberty team looking to return to the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Flames lead the Big South in scoring defense and pitched a 16-0 shutout at Presbyterian last week. Offensively, freshman quarterback Stephen Calvert is a perfect 5-0 as the starter, sparking Liberty from a 1-3 start against a difficult early season schedule. Wide receiver Dante Shells is one of the league's top receivers, averaging over 16 yards per catch with seven touchdowns. Todd Macon has found success on the ground, particularly during conference play.
"The last few weeks, they've done a really nice job of bringing him along," said Chadwell of Calvert. "They've opened up the offense more and he's responded to doing what they've asked him to do. Like always, they're so big and physical which you don't find as much in our league. That's always a big challenge because they'll try to smash us a little."
CSU's defense will also be hoping to get back on track after struggling to contain Gardner-Webb quarterback Tyrell Maxwell in the second half last week. The Bucs' defense came up big in last season's 31-24 comeback win over the Flames. Anthony Ellis spearheaded that effort with a monster day as CSU held Liberty under 300 yards of total offense.
Note: Saturday's game is CSU's fourth this season against a ranked foe. The Bucs have opposed No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 3 Florida State (FBS), No. 14 Coastal Carolina and now No. 24/25 Liberty.