Malik Willis, Liberty offense make for SU’s toughest challenge yet

Malik Willis comes to the Dome this Friday

Liberty's quarterback looks to continue his Heisman Trophy campaign at the Dome Friday night.
Published: September 22, 2021
The Orange takes on the Blue Devils on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at the Carrier Dome
Liberty quarterback Malik Willis (7) runs against the Syracuse during the Flames' October 2020 visit to the Dome.

Encouraged by Syracuse football’s Week 3 performance, Head Coach Dino Babers fielded questions at his weekly press conference on Monday. Reporters peppered him about the team’s quarterback situation and their upcoming game this Friday against the Liberty Flames.

Babers appeared confident in his responses.

But when asked about Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, Babers shook his head and exhaled briefly.

“I’m not going to call him a running back because he’s not,” Babers said. “But God, he does not run like a running quarterback. He’s better than that.”

Yes, he is.

Willis is college football’s latest electrifying dual-threat quarterback. He transferred from Auburn to Hugh Freeze’s Liberty Flames football program in 2019 where he’s gone 12-1 as a starter.

In 2020, Willis amassed 944 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 141 carries. Syracuse’s running back Sean Tucker totaled 626 yards and four touchdowns over 137 carries during the same year.

“That’s the amazing thing is his style of play. You’d think that he would get banged up a little bit or slow up,” Babers said. “You don’t see any of that stuff. He’s a Mack Truck, he just doesn’t go down.”

Willis has an arm, too. That same season, he completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,260 yards and 20 touchdowns. CBS Sports listed Willis as a top 15 pick in their latest 2022 NFL Mock Draft.

“He’s a really talented player, obviously. He has a super strong arm,” Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams said. “He’s most dangerous when he’s running around, being an athlete.”

Friday night won’t be the first time Williams and the Syracuse defense face Willis under the Dome canopy in Syracuse. Liberty’s Heisman candidate racked up 240 total yards and two scores against SU in a 38-21 win last season.

“Last year we felt like we got embarrassed out there,” linebacker Marlowe Wax said. “The whole team. The coaches down to the players, top to bottom.”

Wax, one of two SU players who sacked Willis in their matchup last year, said the Orange are focusing on game film from that night to prepare for Friday.

“Just looking at their tendencies,” Wax said. “Like Malik Willis, what he likes to do, where he likes to look. We’re going to keep looking at that.”

Williams and Wax said containing Willis is the key to stringing together multiple wins for the first time in 2021.

“When he runs the ball, he’s a real good runner,” Wax said. “He’s not just trying to get down, trying to slide, he’s trying to fight for those extra yards.”

The Orange defense ranks No. 2 in the country in yards allowed per play, 3.61, and No. 4 in opponent’s yards per game, 225.3. Willis and the Flames’ offense will be the most versatile challenge they face through four weeks.

“We just gotta keep him in the pocket,” Williams said. “I feel like if we can contain, we’ll be really good.”

The Orange takes on the Blue Devils on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at the Carrier Dome
Syracuse Orange defensive lineman McKinley Williams (0) rushes Liberty Flames quarterback Malik Willis (7) in the second half on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.