With an offense that averages 29 points per game, it’s easy for the defense to get overlooked.
Until you need them.
So, while Liberty (11-0) nearly matched it’s season average, the offense can thank the defense for the 24-7 win against No. 11 seed Scottsdale Coronado (7-4) Friday in the 4A-II State Championships quarterfinals.
”(The defense) prepared all week and the scout team did a great job getting us ready,” said senior linebacker Todd Sechest. “And we really stepped it up in the second half.”
The Dons offensive line opened enough gaps in the first half to spring their leading tailback Shawn Martin. In the second half, Martin collected just 39 yards, with nearly half coming on one run, a 17-yard gain late in the fourth.
“The defense was well prepared this week,” said Liberty Head Coach Dan Filleman. “The coaches put together a great plan and the players executed well tonight. That’s what you need in the playoffs.”
It was work in the first half that set the tone for the Lions.
Lions senior Keegan Whipkey had a pass batted at the line and intercepted deep in Liberty territory in the first quarter to give Coronado an early boost.
Martin then broke a 13-yard run to the Lions’ 23. That’s all he’d get from the Liberty defense as Coronado gained just 6 yards over the drive’s final six plays, including another 13-yard Martin dash. The Dons attempted a 33-yard field goal but it went wide left.
Liberty answered Coronado’s try with its own 28-yard field goal with less than a minute to go in the quarter.
On the next drive, a Dons punt put the ball at midfield for the Lions who put together an 8-play 53-yard drive, capped by quarterback Andre Gattie’s 2-yard touchdown. The drive was kept alive on second-and-18, when Gattie pitched the ball to running back Dan Mihelich who fired a 36-yard pass to junior wide out Brandon Croteau.
Martin got Coronado on the board with a 36-yard touchdown and looked poised to pin the Lions deep in their own zone a series later with a punt. However, the snap sailed over punter Troy Shancez’s head and rolled to the Dons’ 7-yard line. Two Mihelich runs later and Liberty was up 17-7 with a half to play.
”That was a big difference maker,” Filleman said. “That put us up by 10 and gave us plenty of momentum heading into halftime.”
Coronado had a pair of chances in the second half to climb back into the game, but again the Liberty defense kept things from getting interesting.
On first-and-10, Buya hit senior Colton Anderson for a 19-yard gain, but senior linebacker Kyle Benedict stripped the ball away, putting the Lions on their own 29.
With Mihelich on the sidelines without pads and his ankle taped with ice, Liberty mounted an 11-play drive to the Dons’ 16 before Gattie fumbled on successive snaps and Coronado recovered the second loose ball. But on the next play Liberty’s Geordan Key picked off Buya to get the ball back to the Lions’ offense.
”Geordan stepped up on both sides of the ball tonight,” Sechest said. “We needed to get the ball back and that’s what he did for us.”
Liberty added to its lead in the fourth when Whipkey hit Key over the middle. The junior wide out, spun away from the safety and slipped another tackle at midfield before racing to the end zone for a 90-yard touchdown.
”(Coronado) is a tough football team,” Filleman said. “You can’t discount them because they’ll come out and hit you. Look at their starting quarterback, he comes out and plays a good D-end, too. They are tough kids across the board.”