The vaunted Liberty defense didn't lock in right away Friday night.
At first, the Patriots seemed just as vulnerable as any other Central Section team to the hard-nosed running style of Fresno-San Joaquin Memorial's Brandon Ramirez.
By the time Memorial took over late in the second quarter after a fourth-down stop, Ramirez already had 121 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
Then came the crucial fumble. He lost the ball on a second-and-10 carry late in the second quarter and Drew Underwood scooped it up. Six plays later, Cole O'Brien reached to the end zone to give the Patriots a lead they never relinquished, as their defense allowed just 67 yards and zero points in the second half.
Grant Meadors added his second and third field goals of the game and backup quarterback Jace Nixon hit Kresean Kizzy for an 80-yard touchdown as Liberty claimed its second straight CIF Central Section Division I championship, 29-13, over Memorial.
"They fight, they put the work in, and I'm so proud of them," Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. "Just love them to death."
Kizzy provided a spark to the slow-and-steady Patriots offense. He returned a punt 65 yards for a score after a game-opening Panthers three-and-out, then at the end of the third quarter, won some space on the right sideline from Memorial cornerback Donovan Harris to score on a go route from Nixon.
In between those big plays, Jalen Hankins was the engine of the Liberty attack, and finished the game with 147 yards on the ground.
"It's special to be here back-to-back years, and come out with the W back-to-back years," Hankins said. "I'm just so happy to be a part of the team, be a part of this program. It feels great."
His counterpart Ramirez posted just 34 additional yards after halftime before exiting with an apparent injury early in the fourth quarter. With Ramirez missing late in that drive, quarterback Carson Dean took back-to-back sacks from Dylan Delgado and Tyler Lewis to push the Panthers out of scoring range.
"We had a game plan at halftime, and we really came out and executed it and shut down the run like we wanted to," Hankins said.
Dean made several key conversions in the second half, including a fourth-and-3 run on that same fourth-quarter series, but couldn't manage a fourth-and-26 miracle and turned it over on downs, before throwing an interception to Meadors with under two minutes left.
Memorial had led twice in the first half. After Kizzy's punt-return score, Meadors missed the extra point, so Ramirez's near-immediate 62-yard touchdown run gave the Panthers a 7-6 lead. Then, after a fumbled snap derailed the Patriots' goal-to-go opportunity and forced a 25-yard field goal, a Liberty personal foul and a third-down screen to Jayden Enriquez set up Ramirez's second score. That extra point was blocked to make it 13-9.
The Patriots came back with 10 methodical plays, but on the 11th, a fourth-and-2 Hankins run, the running back was wrapped up in the backfield by Enriquez and Brady Stovall.
However, the Underwood fumble recovery put Liberty right back in Memorial territory, and after two completions from O'Brien to Kizzy to reach the goal line, the quarterback took it in himself.
Memorial was content to run out the remaining 1:35, despite trailing 16-13 with Liberty slated to receive the ball after halftime.
The Patriots turned their next drive into a field goal, forced Memorial's first punt since the first quarter and then inserted Jace Nixon in time for the momentum-boosting deep touchdown.
The victory gave Liberty a chance to celebrate a valley championship at home after beating Fresno-Central 42-14 on the road last year. It also gives the Patriots another shot at regional and state competition. Last year, they beat Pittsburg at Memorial Stadium but fell in the state championship at Saddleback College to Gardena-Serra, 21-16.
"We gotta keep going," Hankins said. "We got unfinished business, baby."
Regional brackets will be released Sunday.