Explosive plays doom Liberty in season-opening loss to Berea

By Clay Hamlett
Courier Sports

LIBERTY — A spirited student section and annual blackout jerseys ultimately proved to be fruitless on a warm Friday evening last week as the Berea Bulldogs played spoiler in head coach Paul Sutherland’s debut at the helm of the Liberty Red Devils.

In a game that got away from Liberty late in the first half, Berea coasted to a 47-13 victory in both teams’ season opener.

Still, the opening quarter of the game was indicative of what could’ve been a much closer contest.

On the first drive of the season, Liberty made it clear that the days of the spread offense under former coach Kyle Stewart were firmly in the past. Rather than air the ball out, the Red Devils adopted a power formation that incorporated a blocking tight end and multiple halfbacks.

The strategy appeared to be effective in the early going, as playmakers J.J. Hernandez and Seth Terry split carries on a variety of rushes that slowly chipped away at the Berea defense in a methodical fashion. Following multiple first downs, a fourth-and-short handoff to Terry was blown up in the backfield for a loss, bringing an end to a promising drive.

However, Berea quarterback Roman Brown’s inaugural pass of the season — a deep ball down the left sideline — found its way into the arms of Liberty linebacker Austin Smith for an early takeaway in what may have been the loudest moment of the evening from the energized crowd.

Despite the early injection of momentum, the Red Devils’ offense continued to struggle as Berea quickly keyed in on Liberty’s attempts to duplicate the rushing success of their previous drive. Following a three-and-out and a short 19-yard punt, the Bulldogs began their second drive with prime field position at the Liberty 36-yard line.

Just three plays later, Brown hit senior Julius Nesmith on a pass out of the backfield for a 13-yard score to put the Bulldogs up 6-0.

On the ensuing drive, the Red Devils picked up a couple of first downs before stalling out and punting. Berea wide receiver Christian Roberson returned the punt for a touchdown — a move that proved meaningless, as an illegal block in the back on the play brought the ball back to the Berea 35.

The Bulldogs made up for it just two plays later, however, as Brown dumped off another pass to Nesmith, who weaved his way through Liberty defenders for a jaw-dropping 70-yard touchdown.

Forced into a do-or-die situation, Liberty came out swinging and put together an emphatic eight-play, 70-yard drive that culminated with Hernandez punching in the first touchdown of the Sutherland era from three yards out. A blocked PAT kept the score at 14-6.

Berea responded with another dose of Nesmith, who capped off a long drive with his third touchdown of the quarter. Bad quickly snowballed into worse for the Red Devils as a fumble on the first play of the next possession gave the Bulldogs a chance to steal more points before halftime.

They did just that on a 59-yard touchdown connection from Brown to star wideout Jaheim Dodd, giving Berea a 28-6 lead at the break.

The second half proved to be much of the same for a Liberty offense that was marred by fumbles and understandable growing pains. Berea added three more touchdowns to their total with a fumble recovery in the end zone and two more rushing scores.

Despite this, the Red Devils were still able to cap the night on a positive note, powering the final possession of the evening down the field for an 11-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that gave Hernandez his second trip to the end zone.

In addition to Hernandez and Terry on the offensive end, senior defensive back Landon Zeigler made his presence known on defense, with several tackles, a pass deflection and a key goal-line stand.

Following the game, Sutherland reflected on the positive takeaways from the game and the process required to establish a winning tradition.

“We played hard, and we played clean. That’s going to be the standard here,” Sutherland said. “It’s a grind. They’re grinding every day. This is the battle that has to be won in the weight room 365 days a year, not on one Friday night.”

Although the final outcome on the scoreboard may not have been what the Liberty faithful were hoping for, a special moment at the conclusion of Friday’s game should serve as reassurance to fans that Sutherland’s long-term team-building strategies have a genuinely positive impact on his athletes.

Unbeknownst to Sutherland, 15 Franklin County High School football players made the nearly hour-long trek from Georgia to cheer on the Red Devils in a surprise showing of support for their former coach.

Following the post-game handshakes and team prayer, Sutherland was showered with hugs and high fives from Franklin County players in a display that reflected a bond built both on and off the field. Stories were told and laughs were shared about memories of teammate comradery and football glory.

Perhaps those touching moments are an indicator of what is to come for Liberty football in the years ahead.

One thing is for sure — despite a disappointing opener, the young, scrappy Liberty players certainly showed several signs of promise.

Unfortunately for the Devils, moving past the disappointing opener will have to wait until at least next week, as officials announced Tuesday afternoon that COVID-19 protocols had forced the cancellation of this Friday’s scheduled game with Broome. Liberty is scheduled to play at Landrum on Sept. 10, but only time will tell if that game is able to go on as planned.