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The fun part of the schedule is over.
The Bruins of Blacksburg threw a bucket of cold water into the collective face of the Liberty Minutemen and took a 28-13 victory.
Facing a tremendous quarterback and their own injury bug, the Minutemen found themselves down 14-0 before they even knew what hit them.
The Bruin (3-0) lead was established when signal caller Trey Gresh heaved two perfect pitches and both resulted in end zone celebrations.
The first TD was a 25-yard grabbing dive by Casper Violette. But the beauty of that play (from a Blacksburg perspective) was how Gresh had everyone falling for the play-action. The kid has a future in sales.
The second touchdown was a strike from Gresh to Ricky Sowers. The stats say it was a 7-yard pass. In reality it was 16 yards, 35 inches, as Sowers reined in the pass, dragging his toe just inside the back of the end zone.
The Minutemen (2-1) were rocked. Heck, nobody had scored two touchdowns on them in a game, let alone in a single quarter.
Gresh provided no relief. His slant pass to Kevin Miller resulted in an 8-yard touchdown and a 21-0 Bruin lead.
“He’s the best quarterback we’ve faced,” said Liberty Head Coach Chris Watts. “This kid is good.”
To the Minutemen’s credit, they weren’t prepared to sit back and watch the rest of the Trey Gresh show. Quarterback Anthony Reynolds hit Carlton Payne on the ten yard line. Payne (6’ 6”) outleaped (or outstretched) Sowers (5’ 8”). Hugging the ball closely, Payne then scooted in for the touchdown, cutting the deficit to 14.
Early in the second half, tailback Thomas Clark helped put Liberty into striking distance when he blasted 70 yards down the left sideline and set up Reynolds’s 7-yard dance across the goal line. “That got us back, momentum-wise,” observed Watts.
Next, Liberty kicker Logan Johnson nailed the kick-off, pinning the Bruins back on their own 5-yard line. Liberty had two shots at a safety, but fell just short. Blacksburg, however, showed what it is made of on the possession. Eating up clock and turf, the Bruins went 95 yards for the insurance score. Senior David Bales provided the icer, a 35-yard dash from scrimmage.
In the waning moments of the game, Liberty drove to the Bruins’ red zone. Kordero Thompson, playing quarterback, was hit in the chest with the snap, picked up the loose ball and dove into the end zone. The Minutemen, however, were flagged for not being set. The next two plays resulted in Thompson incompletions and the game was over.
The rest of the Minutemen schedule shapes up to include more teams of Blacksburg’s caliber, rather than that of Magna Vista (34-7 victims last week). “We just hadn’t been pushed,” noted Watts of the team’s preseason and its first couple of games.
In the early going, Liberty could get away with mistakes, more than making up for them by virtue of their advantage in natural talent over those opponents.
Against a squad such as Blacksburg (and the rest of the Seminole), mistakes will kill a team. Ten penalties, mostly for alignment or movement violations, were racked up in the Blacksburg game. The team lined up incorrectly on defense a half-dozen times, when you know that those alignments have been practiced hundreds of times.
These things can be fixed. “We need to maintain our intensity for four quarters,” said Watts. The team also needs to realize that, despite the initial shell-shocking, it squarely belonged on the field with Blacksburg, in terms of talent. One challenge will be to matching up in terms of mental toughness.
The other will be filling up the holes that have suddenly appeared at the Liberty skill positions. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the Minutemen had struggles on the line but were rich at the skill positions. Injuries to Lavarta Tanner (arm) and Justin Davis (ankle) left Liberty with a configuration that had quarterback Tyler Bowyer playing z-back and Reynolds at quarterback.
When Reynolds’s bell was rung in the fourth quarter, Thompson moved from receiver to QB. Payne was moved from the secondary to defensive end, with Dylan Hatcher hurt. “It wasn’t the lineup we were hoping for,” said Coach Watts. “Circumstances dictated now when, before, we had dictated circumstances.”
The Liberty passing attack was especially vibrant, as the Minutemen went to the air 23 times (9 completions, 3 interceptions). Watts noted that the 23 passes is what one might expect over the course of two Liberty games. Nevertheless, “We still need to run the base offense to set up the spread,” said Watts. Don’t expect it the other way around.