BOWLING GREEN — Western Kentucky had no answer for Malik Willis on Saturday.
A junior transfer quarterback from Auburn, Willis torched the Hilltoppers with 168 yards on 21 carries and three touchdowns as the Flames spoiled WKU’s 2020 home opener with a 30-24 conquest at Houchens/Smith Stadium.
Liberty (1-0), coached by Hugh Freeze, dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage, rushing for a whopping 354 yards and amassing 487 yards of total offense.
“They got a good push with their offensive line and wore us down,” said second-year Western head coach Tyson Helton said, whose team fell to 0-2. “They’re a big, physical football team that got the better of us today.
“We knew this would be a tough opponent for us, and (Liberty) proved it on the field of play — we’ve got to go back to work and become a better football team.”
Playing before a limited crowd of 4,276 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flames opened fast — taking a 7-0 lead when Willis capped a five-play, 52-yard drive with a 4-yard scoring run at 11:27 of the first period.
After WKU’s second consecutive 3-and-out possession, Liberty increased its advantage to 10-0 at 5:21 of the first period on a 24-yard field goal by Alex Barbir.
The Toppers trimmed their deficit to 10-3 on the first play of the second quarter when Brayden Narveson connected on a 43-yard field goal, but the Flames responded with an 11-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by a Willis 6-yard run to make it 17-3 at 10:15 of the second.
WKU drew within 17-10 midway through the period on a 6-yard scoring toss from Tyrell Pigrome to Mitchell Tinsley.
Midway through the third quarter, the Hilltoppers pulled even when Dalvin Smith hauled in a 24-yard scoring aerial from Pigrome, but Liberty answered with a 29-yard TD sprint from Shedro Louis to make it 24-17.
Willis scored from 18 yards out early in the fourth quarter to extend the Flames’ advantage to 30-17, but Western closed the gap to six points with 3:04 remaining when Craig Burt Jr. made a leaping catch on a 36-yard strike from Pigrome.
Liberty, however, went back to its bread and butter — the run game — and ran out the clock over the final three minutes to prevail.
“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board,” Helton said. “We need to look in the mirror and correct the things we need to correct.”
Pigrome, a graduate transfer from Maryland, finished 18-of-25 through the air for 193 yards and three touchdowns, also leading the team with 62 rushing yards on 14 carries. Tinsley caught six passes for 69 yards and a TD.
Senior safety Devon Key paced Western with 14 total tackles.
Joshua Mack added 100 yards rushing on 23 carries for Liberty.
Following a bye week, the Hilltoppers return to action on Oct. 3 for their Conference USA opener at arch-rival Middle Tennessee.