Ramon Henderson just needed a chance.
Unable to connect on several opportunities in the passing game early, the speedster made the most of his only touch of the night, exploding for an 82-yard kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter, helping lift Liberty to a 43-34 win over Clovis in a thriller Friday night.
The Patriots looked to have things under control entering the fourth quarter. After going just 1-of-10 passing for four yards in the first half, Patriots quarterback Haden Mann caught fire in the third quarter, where he went 10-of-12 for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
Mann and Nathan Krauss connected for touchdown passes of 30 and 67 yards. With under a minute to play in the third, he also connected with Damian Harless for a 12-yard score, giving Liberty a 36-20 lead.
Mann also added a 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, giving Liberty a 16-13 lead at the half.
A pair of 50-plus yard passes from Clovis quarterback Isaiah Robles to receiver Grant Lake got the Cougars right back in it. The first set up a 7-yard Robles touchdown catch on a trick play, the second a 3-yard Tristan Risely run. After converting the first two-point try, the Cougars failed on the second, keeping Liberty ahead 36-34.
But within seconds, the momentum swung all the way back in the Patriots' favor, as Henderson ran right, found an opening and coasted for a score that pushed the lead back to two possessions.
"I was a little down on myself because I hadn't made a play (before that)," Henderson said. "They didn't kick it to me the entire game so ... happy I made that, happy to contribute. As long as we win, that's all that matters."
Special teams proved to be the difference for much of the night. Kicker Brayden Blevins made field goal attempts of 40, 25 and 21 yards, and also consistently avoided touchbacks on kickoffs, landing kicks inside 5 and allowing his coverage unit to pin Clovis inside the 20 on three straight possessions in the second quarter.
The Patriots, who started all three of their second-quarter scoring drives in Clovis territory, had their best field position of the night after Jojo Montecinos returned a punt 70 yards to the Cougar 13.
"Our special teams played lights out tonight," Patriots coach Bryan Nixon said. "We talk about three phases of the game, and how we've got to play well in all three phases and I thought our kids did that."
Krauss finished with 113 receiving yards, while Prentice Boone went over 100 yards rushing for the third straight game, gaining 127 yards, punctuated by a 27-yard run late in the fourth quarter that helped the Patriots drain the clock.
After spending five consecutive weeks, including a preseason scrimmage, on the road, Nixon said it was a relief to finally play on his home field. The biggest relief though, came with getting a win and securing a 4-1 start heading into a bye week before league play starts.
"It's good to be in this position," he said. "There's a lot of things we've got to do to get better, so we can use this week to get better. Then we get to start phase two and that's league play."
C 13 0 7 14 — 34
L 3 13 20 7 — 43
C - Robles 3 run (Rocha kick)
L - Blevins 40 field goal
C - Robles 42 run (kick failed)
L - Blevins 25 field goal
L - Blevins 21 field goal
L - Mann 9 run (Blevins kick)
L - Krauss 30 pass from Mann (kick failed)
C - Risley 74 run (Rocha kick)
L - Kraus 67 pass from Mann (Blevins kick)
L - Harless 12 pass from Mann (Blevins kick)
C - Robles 7 pass from Johnson (Robles run)
C - Risley 3 run (pass failed)
L - Henderson 82 kick return (Blevins kick)