CLOVIS — With Liberty High’s offense struggling, the Patriots turned to their defense for the biggest plays of the season.
Liberty linebackers Derek Frost and Julian Nieto each returned Clovis fumbles for touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally the No. 8-seeded Patriots to a stunning 25-23 upset over top-seeded Clovis on Friday night at Lamonica Stadium.
Clovis (9-2) had shut down Liberty’s running game to that point and had a 17-12 lead when Cougars quarterback Jake Gatewood completed what appeared to be a pass for a first down to C.J. Broussard at the Clovis 40 with just under seven minutes remaining in the game.
Christian Sinnott, running full speed, slammed into Broussard, knocking the ball backward 10 yards. Frost picked it up and raced 30 yards, giving the Patriots their first lead of the game, 18-17.
“I closed my eyes and locked in on him,” Sinnott said. “It’s amazing.”
Frost said it was the first touchdown he’s ever scored in his life.
“It was unreal,” Frost said. “I saw the ball go down and decided to pick it up. It’s the defense as a whole that makes big plays. It just happens to be one player who makes it.”
Two Clovis players nearly ran Frost down, but he barely got into the end zone.
“I wasn’t even looking behind me,” he said. “Once I got near the goal line I made a leap for it."
Three minutes later, the Liberty defense stepped up again.
This time Clovis running back Jason Black dropped the exchange from Gatewood. Nieto picked up the fumble, broke away from a would-be ankle tackle and raced 42 yards to the end zone, putting the Patriots ahead 25-17.
Clovis wasn’t finished. A 56-yard pass from Gatewood to Logan Poisall got the Cougars to the Liberty 9, and Marlon Watkins scored his second TD of the night on the next play, a 9-yard run, making it 25-23 with 2:48 left.
Needing a two-point conversion to tie,l Gatewood completed it to tight end Nick Nevills, but three Liberty defenders swarmed him at the 2 and kept him out of the end zone, keeping it a two-point game.
“I thought they were going to run it,” said Liberty coach Tony Mills. “Our (assistant) coach Nick Harker scouted it out and knew it was coming. Our daubers were down, but I told them we still had a two-point lead.”
Liberty recovered the ensuing on-side kick. The Patriots didn’t get a first down, but three running plays forced the Cougars to use their final two timeouts. When Clovis got possession, only 1:51 remained and the Cougars were pinned back on their own 20.
That’s when the Patriots unleashed their best defensive stand of the night. Gatewood was sacked on four straight plays, giving the ball over to Liberty with 22 seconds left. One kneel down and it was over.
“I’m extremely proud of our kids,” Mills said. “They played as a team. Our defense stepped it up. Their team doesn’t make many mistakes, and our defense stepped up and capitalized on those mistakes. It’s a special night.”
Liberty (8-4) travels to fourth-seeded Fresno-Central next Friday. Central downed No. 5 Bakersfield 42-28.
“We turned the ball over and you can’t turn the ball over,” Clovis coach Rich Hammond said. “At the end of the day, those two fumbles for touchdowns cost us the game.”
Clovis had 254 net rushing yards and closed in on 300 before Gatewood was sacked on the final four Cougar plays from scrimmage. Adrian Salas had 140 yards on 24 carries and Watkins had 26 carries for 130 yards to lead the Cougars.
Liberty had only one rushing first down in the game and only 47 net rushing yards. Corbin Jountti had 16 carries for 44 yards, No one else had more than four rushing yards for Liberty.
Medina had a nice night, completing 13 of 20 passes for 191 yards. He had a 40-yard TD pass to Kenny Davis with nine seconds left in the first half that trimmed Clovis’ halftime lead to 10-6. Medina had an 11-yard TD pass to Anthony Mariscal with 9:36 left in the fourth quarter that pulled the Patriots within 17-12.
The Cougars led 10-6 at halftime, thanks to a nifty trick play on fourth down late in the second quarter.
Clovis was ahead 3-0 and facing a fourth-and-3 from the Liberty 21 with 1:18 left. After a timeout after unsuccessfully trying to draw the Patriots offsides, Clovis inserted wide receiver Broussard at quarterback and packed the offensive line tightly together.
On the snap with Broussard in shotgun formation, he took two steps forward, leaped in the air and had his choice of two receivers wide open in the secondary. All 11 Liberty defenders had crashed the line of scrimmage. Broussard’s pass to tight end Nevills went for 21 yards and a touchdown, with Jake Poindexter’s PAT making it 10-0 with 1:09 left in the half.
But Liberty came right back. Helped by a short kickoff that enabled the Patriots to start the next drive at the Liberty 41, Jountti went 10 yards and Medina completed passes to Jountti and Tyson Brewer for 14 yards to the Clovis 40. On a fourth-and-1 play, Medina threaded the needle, firing a pass that barely missed the fingertips of a Clovis defender and caught by Kenny Davis, who turned up field, broke to his right and went into the end zone with nine seconds left.
The PAT was wide left, but the Patriots had pulled within 10-6.