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4/9 (2 INT)
21/29 (2 INT)
Outside the Pocket: 4/6 (INT)
Under Pressure: 6/8
Red Zone: 1/2 (INT)
3rd/4th Down: 5/5
Forced Adjustments: 0
Explosive Plays (25+ yards and/or touchdown): 1
Coastal Carolina's Cinderella season came to a grim ending at the hands of Liberty. In 37-34 overtime fashion, Liberty, another Group of Five terror this season, took down the Chanticleers, giving Liberty a nice little cherry on top of their impressive season. While the win served as a statement for the team itself, it also served as a major statement for quarterback Malik Willis, who has been one o the most electric quarterbacks in the country all year.
A former Auburn man, Willis tore it up at Liberty this season. Willis completed 170-of-265 passes for 2,260 yards (8.5 per attempt) while earning 20 passing touchdowns to six picks. His blend of dangerous arm talent and the ability to create outside the pocket was a nightmare for opposing defenses. The star quarterback also dazzled all year long as a runner. Willis finished with 141 carries for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns, four of which he punched in against Coastal Carolina alone.
As the four rushing touchdowns illustrate, Willis’ power in this game lied mostly in what he did on the ground. At 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, Willis is more running back-sized than quarterback-sized, and he sure moves like it. Willis runs with exceptional vision and stop/start ability, as well as a nice pair of afterburners once he gets some space. Couple that with some of the power and willingness he brings when running between the hash marks, and it’s easy to see how every quarterback run concept is open in Liberty’s playbook.
A personal favorite of mine is “counter read.” “Counter read” can be run with either the QB headed to the pulling side or away from it (like a typical zone read), depending on which side the RB is aligned pre-snap. In this instance, the RB is headed towards the pulling side, while Willis is free to read the back-side defender and take off. Coastal Carolina’s outside linebacker, the read defender, shuffles too far inside during the potential hand-off, leaving Willis plenty of room to tuck the ball and scoot into the end zone.
Plays such as that one do not necessarily illustrate Willis’ rushing ability at its peak, but the fact that those concepts are allowed to be in the playbook is valuable. For one, it helps even out box counts when the defense now has to account for another rusher. Additionally, Liberty can also call complementary plays with this, such as RPOs (run-pass options) off of counter-action that give Willis a passing option rather than having him be a runner if he decides to pull. Anything that gives the defense more to consider is a good thing. Willis’ rushing ability certainly creates that.
Sometimes, though, the play gets defended well and Willis simply proves himself to be the best athlete on the field. This touchdown scamper is a good example of that. Liberty is running a QB sweep. The wing tight end (No.0) is responsible for climbing to the outside linebacker and sealing him off so that Willis can cleanly get to the edge. The tight end plays it a bit cautiously and allows the linebacker to get over the top to potentially box this play in. Thanks to Willis’ agility and explosiveness (and, truthfully, some light holding by the tight end), Willis is still able to win the perimeter and dive in for the score. Plays like that’ll make a defense feel helpless.
Of course, it’s more than just the designed runs where Willis shines. Willis does well to use his athleticism as a built-in “extra” option for every passing play. In turn, Liberty likes to get him going with some moving pockets, but the onus is still on Willis to take things into his own hands. He is electric when he does.
In this clip, Liberty is running a boot with a tight end coming across the formation on a slide route. More often than not, these plays are designed explicitly to target the slide route for some cheap yardage and a chance to get someone moving on the perimeter. Rather than throw the slide right away, Willis pumps his arm and looks to run through the area the slide route is clearing out. The pump fake opens up the initial window, but it’s Willis’ quick feet and toughness that get him in the end zone. Most quarterbacks do not have this available to them, but with moves and power like Willis, each play has more to offer.
At the end of the day, however, Willis is a quarterback. He’s got to be able to throw his team into leads and keep them hanging around in close games. While Willis has certainly proved to be a threatening passer throughout the year, he was a mixed bag against Coastal Carolina. On one play, he would flash a nice little throw down the field from outside the pocket, only to follow up with a horrendous misfire on the next play. Willis was all over the place.
Where Willis consistently showed up was when pressured. On eight pass attempts under pressure, Willis delivered an accurate pass a whopping six times. Getting to even 50% accuracy under pressure is solid, let alone 75%. Sure, sure, the sample is small for one game like this, but he delivered when he needed to against the Chanticleers.
A lot of playing under pressure is being able to avoid speeding up one’s mechanics too hastily to avoid getting hit. Quarterbacks will too often cheat their throwing motion to get the ball out quickly or start fading away as they throw to avoid the hit. Willis does neither here and sticks the throw to the hitch player sitting low on the “Smash" concept. The throw itself is nothing eye-popping, but you’ve got to love it when a quarterback is willing to make a throw later in the down, knowing they are about to get hit. For as much as we meme a player like Jared Goff, that exact trait plays a role in the success he’s had to this point in his career.
In this instance, Willis does well to adjust his mechanics to the situation. The incoming pass-rusher makes it such that Willis obviously can not step up into this throw. Usually, a QB will “open” their hips with their final step with their lead foot before throwing, but there is no way Willis can reset that front foot. As a quick fix, Willis instead hinges off his back foot and allows his front foot to hang off the ground and swing back. This allows Willis’ hips to come around without having his feet stuck in the ground. When coupled with some crisp upper body mechanics, Willis is able to quite easily make this throw despite the unexpected pressure on the quick pass.
What’s odd is that Willis threw some horrific passes from much cleaner platforms than this. Willis did have some solid throws, do not get me wrong, but he had a couple of blatant misfires that cost his team yards, and, in a couple instances, possession of the ball.
Once Willis clears the first defender on the boot action, he has plenty of space to work with. There is a defender beginning to creep down, but Willis has at least five yards to work with. This is not really a pressure situation. Willis eventually locks into a target down the field, but throws the route nowhere near the way it needs to be. The wide receiver he throws to is clearly making his way up the field while only slightly angling towards the sideline. Willis should match that and try to throw the ball up near the 20-yard mark. Whether due to not believing in his arm strength or there being a potential miscommunication, Willis throws this as if the receiver was supposed to work back to the ball, leaving it in a ripe position to be picked off.
Whether we want to blame this on decision or raw accuracy does not much matter. Willis had some time to work with and chose to chuck the ball up directly into danger. Can’t have that. Unfortunately, that probably was not Willis’ most egregious miss of the night. The other just happened to not bite him in the behind.
There is no excuse for this miss. Willis not only has a perfectly clean pocket, but hitches multiple times to allow himself to set his feet just how he wants. Alas, Willis fires over and behind his target’s head, giving the deep safety a clean shot at the ball for an interception. The deep safety fails to haul it in, but more often than not, this play probably ends in a pick if you run it back 100 times.
Thanks to some good defense towards the end, Liberty were able to pull off the upset in the end. Willis, while erratic through the air, still hit on enough passes to allow his work on the ground to really shine. Willis has had some fantastic games this year through both the air and ground, but it’s safe to say this one was more of the latter.
Thankfully, Willis has another year of eligibility left to figure some of these misfires out. Whether Willis will choose to dominate at Liberty for another season or perhaps look to jump back to the Power Five is unclear for now. Willis has certainly earned himself a shot at a good Power Five program, though, and it would be exciting to see him in a more challenging environment.