Passing attack keys Red Devil comeback

By Jimmy Kirby
Courier Sports

LIBERTY — The Liberty Red Devils extended their perfect start to a perfect season with a thrilling and uncharacteristic comeback method in a 28-27 victory over 4A Blue Ridge on Friday night.

The Red Devils have characteristically been a running, grind-out-the-clock, ball-control team, but they found success through the air on a night when putting points on the board quickly was of the utmost importance.

The game started auspiciously as all the power went out in the stadium. There was no clock and no lights. The game started about 10 minutes late, and the officials on the field kept time. The power was restored with 9:53 remaining in the first quarter.

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Doug Tate/Photo
Liberty junior Michael Spruill sprints away from a pair of Blue Ridge defenders on Friday night. Spruill scored twice, including the go-ahead touchdown, during the Devils’ win.

Three of the four teams the Red Devils have played this season have favored the spread game with the pass being their primary threat. This has given the Red Devils plenty of opportunity to prepare defensively. It has also helped the Red Devils improve their passing game, which paid dividends against the Tigers.

After holding the Tigers on downs to start the game, Liberty wasted no time in getting the first score of the game as the Devils marched 90 yards in just seven plays. The drive took 2:12 off the game clock. Nick Reeves connected with Kevon Tabron for 16 yards on the first play from scrimmage to the Tiger 26-yard line. After five consecutive running plays, Reeves this time found Tabron from 44 yards out to put the Red Devils up 7-0 with 7:41 remaining in the first quarter.

9-14 Page 1B.inddLiberty was right back in business when Jacob Herman recovered a Sonny Stevens fumble at the Blue Ridge 31-yard line. The Red Devils got as close as the Tiger 6-yard line after passes of 15 yards to Michael Spruill and 18 yards to Colton Leroy with a holding call in-between, but Blue Ridge blocked a 27-yard Austin Kemp field goal attempt to end the drive.

The Red Devils were on the move again very early in the second quarter, but a Reeves pass was intercepted by D.J. Willis at the Liberty 45-yard line and returned 27 yards to the Red Devil 18-yard line.

The Tigers wasted no time, as Jake Smith connected with Ethan Rice for a score on the first play of the drive to make it 7-6 after Liberty’s Victor Tetter got a hand on Neko Crist’s extra-point attempt that found its way into the chest of Herman.

The Tigers’ next score came on a four-play, 75-yard drive that took only 1:43 off the game clock. Smith found Stevens for 42 yards on the first play of the drive, then connected with Chandler Quinn for seven yards before finishing off the drive with a 29-yard pass to Stevens for the score. Smith called his own number on the two-point run to put the Tigers up 14-7.

The Red Devils then put together a great drive of their own as they marched 64 yards in 10 plays, only to be stopped at the Tiger 1-yard line with 1:32 remaining until halftime. It appeared Cavaugio Butler did cross the plane to the end zone, but the junior was marked down at the 1-yard line.

Then the unimaginable happened to the Red Devils again. They again gave up a score right before the half. This time it was not a time-expiring score, as Liberty had allowed the previous two weeks, but a bomb that went the length of the field on the first play from scrimmage as Smith found Rice for the 99-yard scoring toss to extend the Tiger lead to 21-7.

The Red Devils had plenty of scoring chances but had failed to capitalize and found themselves in a major hole for the first time this season. How would they handle the tale of two halves?

The Red Devils again came out strong offensively to start the third quarter. After a 30-yard kick return by Tabron to the Liberty 42-yard line, Reeves went to work through the air once again. He found Tabron for two yards, Spruill for 15 yards and then connected with Spruill again for a seven-yard touchdown to close the gap to 21-14.

9-14 Page 1B.inddA couple drives later, the Tigers extended their lead to 27-14. The Red Devil defense had backed the Tigers up to their own 9-yard line with a two-yard loss on the first play as Zane Boozer stopped Smith, then Jack Brissey sacked Smith for 10 more yards back to the 9-yard line. However, Smith connected with Stevens for a 91-yard bomb for the Tiger score. The Tigers then attempted a two-point pass that was intercepted by Aaron Bates to nullify the try. That ultimately would be the difference in the contest.

The Red Devils had one more drive left in them to end the third quarter. They scored on the last play of the quarter to culminate a six-play, 30-yard drive when Austin Huey scored from two yards out on the only rushing touchdown of the game.

It was Huey who gave the Red Devils great field position as he blocked a Crist punt that was downed at the Blue Ridge 30-yard line with 1:47 remaining in the quarter.

The Red Devil defense took over from there, as they never allowed Blue Ridge past their own 40-yard line.

The Red Devils started their game-winning drive with 8:44 remaining in the game. Reeves had his longest rush of the season with a 28-yard scamper to the Tiger 49-yard line. After incomplete passes on first and third down and just a one-yard rush by Reeves to the Blue Ridge 48-yard line, the Red Devils faced fourth and nine and elected to go for it. Reeves then found Tabron good for 40 yards down to the Blue Ridge 8-yard line to set up a first and goal.

Tabron gained two yards to the Tiger 6-yard line on first down. Reeves’ pass to Butler was incomplete on second down. A block below the waist pushed the Red Devils back to the 21-yard line. Consecutive incomplete passes by Reeves to Shaun Karr and Cole Murphy brought up another fourth-down attempt to gain the lead.

Facing fourth and goal from the Tiger 21-yard line and the game in the balance, Reeves threw a beautiful pass over the defender that found Michael Spruil to complete the comeback and tie the game at 27-27 with 4:29 remaining in the game. Kemp’s all-important PAT was true, and the Red Devils had the lead for good at 28-27.

After stopping the Tigers once more, the Red Devils celebrated by running out the clock and gaining their fourth win of the season.

The Red Devils won the battle of total yards 407-383. Reeves was 16-of-28 for 237 yards and one interception. Take away the two long passes by the Tigers and they were around 200 yards of offense. The chunk plays hurt the Red Devil defense by allowing the scores, but also helped in the end to keep the defense off the field and fresh for the fourth-quarter stops.

There will be little time to celebrate for the Red Devils, as they will face another 3A opponent in the Powdersville Patriots, who will bring a very balanced attack and a 2-1 record. They opened the season with a 32-22 loss to Belton-Honea Path and then put together back-to-back wins over Wren (41-28) and Seneca (38-31).

Powdersville won a region battle last season, 35-7. It should be an exciting night to see if the streak continues. The battle should be Liberty’s toughest of the season so far.