Difficult circumstances, many of its own doing, made the 2019 Freedom Bowl a more grueling affair than Liberty has grown accustomed to in recent years.
And yet, for the 10th-consecutive year, the Patriots got the desired result in their matchup against rival Centennial Friday.
Jason Oliver made a key third-quarter interception in the end zone to kill a potential tying scoring drive, and the Patriots held on for a 17-7 win over the Golden Hawks in each team's Southwest Yosemite opener.
The Patriots (5-1, 1-0), who had outscored Centennial 312-47 in the last seven meetings, looked primed for another comfortable win in the second quarter. After rushing for a 20-yard score in the first quarter, Patriots quarterback Haden Mann connected with Ramon Henderson on a perfectly thrown 8-yard fade route, pushing the lead to 14-0.
But Liberty, which had a first-quarter interception return for a touchdown negated by a roughing the passer flag, gave the Golden Hawks life on their final drive of the first half, by jumping in the neutral zone on a fourth-and-two.
Centennial (3-3, 0-1) cashed in on the mistake, as Max Richey and Karson McKindley connected for an 18-yard touchdown pass 12 seconds before halftime, cutting the deficit to 14-7.
Liberty, which committed five personal fouls, had another turnover taken away in the third quarter, as an unnecessary roughness flag negated a fumble recovery, and eventually set the Golden Hawks up at the Patriots 11.
But a risky cross-body throw by Richey into the end zone backfired, as Oliver jumped the route, creating a needed takeaway that swung momentum back in his team's favor.
“It was just a matter of breaking on the ball," Oliver said. "I just saw it come out of the quarterback’s hands and was in position to make a play on it. We finally got some momentum going and we really needed it. They started coming back and we just had to put them away.”
Following the negated pick-six, the Golden Hawks also put together a potential scoring drive, reaching the Patriots' 4-yard line. But three consecutive incomplete passes resulted in an empty trip.
“We had two trips down in the red zone and came away with zero points," coach Richard Starrett said. "Playing a really good football team like that, you’ve got to get points in those situations.”
Ironically enough, a penalty saved the Patriots two possessions later.
A 34-yard Brayden Blevins field goal attempt fell short, but thanks to a false start penalty, he got another crack at it. Blevins then connected from 39 yards out for what proved to be the final score of the night.
“A win’s a win and we’re going to take it," Patriots coach Bryan Nixon said. "I’m really proud of how our kids played. We had a lot of adversity in the course of that game so we’re pleased with them.”
Starrett, though disappointed with the result, was quick to praise his team, particularly a defense that has surrendered just three touchdowns since a 66-6 loss to Righetti three weeks ago.
“It’s an exciting loss, if that makes sense," he said. "I don’t believe in moral victories, but at the same time I believe in kids playing hard for four quarters and that’s what we did tonight and it’s exciting to see.”
Liberty 17, Centennial 7
L 7 7 0 3 — 17
C 0 7 0 0 — 7
L - Mann 20 run (Blevins kick)
L - Henderson 8 pass from Mann (Blevins kick)
C - McKindley 18 pass from Richey (Helton kick)
L - Blevins 39 field goal
RUSHING — L: Boone 15-89, Mann 9-44, Tooker 2-18. C: Finney 13-34, Richey 10-7, Dutton 1-4
PASSING — L: Mann 7-11-86-1. C: Richey 13-21-100-1.
RECEIVING — L: Henderson 2-29, Jake O'Connell 2-26, Boone 1-1, Montecinos 1-17, Harless 1-13. C: Flores 3-32, Fimple 4-31, No. 27 2-7, McKindey 1-18, DeFabrizio 1-6, Barraza 1-6
RECORDS: L 5-1, 1-0, C 3-3, 0-1