For a high school football program that has seen early success, statement games should be hard to come by.
However, Liberty head coach Dan Filleman said he couldn’t deny Friday's match up with Peoria was a big win for his program.
“Peoria has been the dominant team in the area for a long time,” Filleman said. “Coach Clapp always puts together good teams and for us to play with those guys is a step for us.”
The Lions picked off Peoria quarterback Nick Salute twice in the fourth quarter, and capitalized early on Panther penalties for a 28-21 win against the West Valley football stalwart.
“That was a big step in the right direction for us,” said senior Jarred Johnson. "A lot of people still doubt us, but after beating Peoria tonight, we made our statement.”
Johnson’s actions late in the fourth quarter were a statement themselves.
On three consecutive plays, the senior defensive end got to Panther quarterback Nick Salute. He flushed him from the pocket twice and nearly brought him down with linebacker Marcus Chaney.
Peoria (1-3) punted and its defense held Liberty, who sent the ball back to the Panthers with its own punt. On the first play of the drive, Johnson peeled around the right tackle and sacked Salute for a 9-yard loss. It was Johnson’s second sack of the game.
One play later, Lions cornerback Kyle Harms picked off Salute near the Liberty 35 yard line and returned it to Peoria's 18. Two plays later Tyler Rogers ran the ball in from 11 yards out to give Liberty a 28-14 lead with a 7:03 remaining.
“We just kept getting pressure on them,” Johnson said. “We knew they were going to play for it so we just had to go out there and push back. Our defense stopped their run, so their only thing they had open was the pass. After facing them all night, we knew when it was going to be a run or a pass.”
It seems that is the recipe to slow down Peoria – take away the run and force Salute to win through the air. It didn’t work against Cactus last week, but Salute found some success against Liberty Friday.
“We knew they had the ability to go to the air,” Filleman said. “They are mainly a run team so we shut that down pretty good, so they went to the air. We had some break downs, not too bad – we had guys there – we just didn’t make the plays.”
Peoria is also short-handed on the offensive line, where it misses Iyan Garza. The senior injured his knee in the 43-0 win against Moon Valley. But head coach Doug Clapp was quick to point out the Panthers didn’t lose because they had injuries on the line.
“It’s new personnel in there, so there is a learning curve,” Clapp said. “But that’s not an excuse. You have to find ways to win and we didn’t. We just had too many mistakes.”
The Panthers shot themselves in the foot throughout the night, with the biggest coming with less than four minutes to play. Salute dropped back to pass and fired a shot over the middle that was picked off by Hayden Pearce to seal the win.
Peoria tied the game late in the third quarter as Salute found tight end George Spoonmore for a 6-yard touchdown, to make it a 14-14 game.
Liberty answered midway through the fourth on a 12-play 71-yard drive that featured a pair of penalties that backed the Lions into a first-and-25 situation.
“We don’t like to be in those kinds of situations, but we’re glad we have the athletes to get us moving,” Filleman said. “We can spread the ball around. Tyler (Rogers) was throwing the ball pretty good today and when he can hook up with Paul Panaccione or Caleb Robinson they can pick up big gains.”
Which is just what the Lions did on third-and-12 when Rogers found Panaccione for a 14-yard gain. Rogers then chipped away on the ground, gaining 39 yards on four runs before punching the ball in for a 2-yard touchdown and a 14-6 lead.
The Rogers and Panaccione put Liberty on the board first with a 4-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Running back Ryan Benedict broke the tie with a nifty 8-yard run that saw him fight through a trio of tackles before breaking the goal line plane for a 21-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
It looked as though Liberty (3-0) would break things open in the second quarter. Following Rogers’ first touchdown, Lions kicker Willie Schwab pooched the kickoff over the Peoria line and Chad Bennett came down with the ball for Liberty. A 33-yard pass play and a 6-yard run from Benedict handed the Liberty a goal-to-go situation, but on third-and-goal, Rogers couldn’t find an open receiver in the face of the Peoria blitz. While evading the pass rush, Rogers fumbled and Arnold DeAlejandro recovered the ball.
Rogers also threw a first quarter intereception to cornerback Chris Chapman. He would finish the day with 85 yards rushing, 127 yards passing, two rushing touchdowns and another in the air. On the other side of the field, Salute threw for 206 yards with two picks and three touchdowns.
While the emotion was there for this first-time inter-city matchup, Johnson said he has his sights on next week’s opponent – Sunrise Mountain.
“That’s the real rivalry right there. That will be fun,” he said.