Red zone woes, lost fumbles haunt Devils in loss to Trojans

By Clay Counts
Special to The Courier

LIBERTY — After being shut out on the road in their previous two outings, the Liberty Red Devils were hoping to right the ship with a visit from a Carolina High team riding a 42-game losing streak on Friday night.

Instead, it was the Trojans who reversed their fortunes at Red Devil Stadium on Friday night, as they snapped a skid that dated back more than four years with a 16-7 win.

On a night that featured much-appreciated cooler weather and the enshrinement of three new members into the Liberty High School Hall of Fame, ball security was again an issue for the Red Devils in the loss. A week removed from losing five fumbles on a wet Friday night at St. Joseph’s, Liberty turned the ball over four times against Carolina, including losing three of five fumbles.

Liberty coach Kyle Stewart said that will again be a focus at practice as the Devils have a bye this week before opening region play at Seneca next Friday.

“We’ll have ball security drills for sure,” he said. “We spent the entire week last week on offense on installing that in hopes of giving ourselves a better opportunity.”

After winning the toss, Liberty deferred to the second half, giving Carolina the first stab at the ball. The Red Devil defense stood strong, forcing a three-and-out and setting the tone early for the night.

Liberty came out hot after receiving the punt with a strong run across midfield from Dereshun Butler. The drive showed some hope before stalling, and the Devils punted.

The ball immediately bounced well for Liberty on the first play of Carolina’s possession, though, with the Red Devils’ Duncan Owen recovering a fumble at the Trojans’ 16-yard line.

Setup in great field position, the Red Devils were unable to capitalize with a drive that went backward and ended in a turnover on downs. Carolina controlled the ball for the rest of the first quarter, which ended scoreless.

Early in the second quarter, the Trojans came up short on a fourth-down attempt to give the Red Devils the ball back at their own 33-yard line.

Liberty kept the ball on the ground, finding great success moving the ball against the Trojan defense, and Shaimaine Jamison punched it into the end zone on an 11-yard run for the game’s first points midway through the second quarter. Alexis Holliday nailed the PAT to make the score 7-0 with 6:08 left in the half.

With momentum on their side, the Red Devils surprised Carolina with an onside quick, which Liberty recovered.

The Devils seemed to be on their way to stretching the lead with the offense staying hot, as Carter Smith took a 25-yard run all the way for a touchdown before a holding call brought it back. After a few more penalties, Luke Terry responded with a 30-yard run of his own to the Carolina 19-yard line. Liberty broke inside the Carolina 10 before losing the ball on a fumble with 2:55 left in the half.

The Red Devil defense stood strong again, though, forcing another Carolina punt.

With 41 seconds remaining in the opening half, Mitchell Watson kept hope alive for another score, connecting on a pass to Smith down to the Carolina 24-yard line.

The turnover bug bit once more to snuff the threat, as the Devils lost another fumble to the Trojans to send the game to halftime with Liberty up 7-0.

During a special halftime celebration, Larry Henderson, Suzanne Merck and Missy Ricken became the newest members enshrined in the LHS Athletic Hall of Fame for their many contributions to Liberty athletics over the years.

The Devils had a hard time building steam on the opening drive of the second half before punting the ball away, but the Liberty defense continued its strong play as Owen had a tackle for loss and a sack to stymie the Carolina offense on its first possession of the third quarter.

After the Trojans again came up short on a fourth down attempt, Liberty began with the ball at its own 45-yard line and stayed hot on the ground. The Devils drove the ball all the way to Carolina’s 16-yard line before fumbling it away once more.

With all the air seemingly released from the stadium, Carolina’s Ty Hampton put the visitors on the scoreboard on the next snap, as he sprinted 84 yards for a touchdown. The Trojans converted a two-point conversion attempt to take an 8-7 lead with 19 seconds left in the third quarter.

When Carolina elected to try its own surprise onside kick, Liberty was ready and recovered the ball with great field position.

The Devils again found success on the ground and ate time off the clock. Another big pass connection from Watson to Smith kept the drive alive as Liberty pushed the ball down to the Trojan 8-yard line before the drive stalled. Stewart called his field goal unit onto the field, but a couple unblocked Trojans squeezed through to block the kick attempt.

Much like earlier, Carolina made the Devils pay quickly after a big-time momentum swing, as Hampton broke free for a 74-yard touchdown on the very next play. After another two-point conversion, the Trojans led 16-7 with 2:53 to play in the game.

Liberty got one more shot with the ball, but Smith was picked off on a pass to snuff out the Devils’ final hope.

In a game that was within the Red Devils’ grasp, Stewart said the difference was his team failing to capitalize on its opportunities to put points on the board.

“I thought we moved the ball at times, but if you get inside the 20 and get nothing, you’re not going to win a lot of ball games,” he said. “We can’t turn the ball over like that — those are back breakers. We had a plan to see what we could get installed in a week, and some of those we couldn’t get ironed out, but we will fine tune those Monday and see what corrections we can make.”