Minutemen fall short in upset bid of Heritage

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Turnovers do in the M-Men

By Mike Forster

What might have been one of the greatest wins in the history of Liberty football will go in the record books as merely a 30-27 loss to Heritage. The Minutemen flexed some muscle as their offense produced drive after drive against the unbeaten defending Region III champion Pioneers. The visitors racked up yardage out of their stacked-I seemingly at will, moving the football nearly 400 yards on the ground. The problem, alas, was the M-Men couldn't seem to hold onto it. "We gave them that football game," grumbled Liberty Head Coach Chris Watts. "I told my players all week, (Heritage) would win if we gave it to them." That's exactly what happened. While Liberty turned the ball over four times (three fumbles and an interception), Heritage yielded a Silas Marner-like zero turnovers. As a result, Liberty was forced to turn to Lukas Bondenstein in the game's waning seconds. The German foreign exchange student, who until a few months ago had never stepped foot on an American football field, took aim at a 32-yard field goal with seconds remaining on the game clock. His kick had enough distance, but sailed just wide of the left upright, sending the Heritage sideline into euphoric bliss. It didn't need to come down to a scenario where a team from central Virginia relies on a fellow whose previous exposure to football consisted of the European kind: the game we call soccer in these parts. Liberty's pass defense, which has been its bane all season long, made Heritage quarterback Austin Fitzgerald look positively Manningesque. The slight senior ended the evening with three touchdown passes. He was 15-for-29, tossing for 240 yards. Best of all, from a Pioneer perspective, he threw no picks. Why throw 29 times? For starters, because the Liberty run defense was stout. It penned in Heritage star back Frankie Hickson, holding him to 50 yards on 13 carries. The rest of the Pioneers were held to negative yardage. But, in order to shut a team down, you have to stop both the run and the pass. Fitzgerald is a very good quarterback, no doubt. But on two occasions, his touchdown tosses went to receivers who were, for all intents, uncovered. Liberty, meanwhile, welcomed back quarterback Austin Porter with open arms. Heritage welcomed back the swift signal caller with closed arms, as the Pioneer defenders missed him often: Porter picked up 110 yards on the ground. The other parts of the Liberty troika of torment did their parts, as well. Devin Carper dashed for a trio of touchdowns while piling up 140 yards. Matthew Smith bulled his way to 130 yards. The troika really came through when Liberty fell behind 30-20. On the next play from scrimmage, Porter dashed 33 yards off left end Two plays later, Carper went 30 yards off left tackle. Trailing by three points, Liberty got the ball on its own 10, with six minutes left. The M-Men went on an 18-play drive which included a pair of fourth-down conversions. The last conversion was Porter's only completion of the evening, to a sliding Dustin Hiner at the 15, with 14 seconds left. Though Liberty could have likely punched it into the end zone, they had no time-outs remaining, setting up the field goal attempt. The upshot The victory did a number of things for the Pioneers. First, it kept them unbeaten at 8-0. Second, it ensured they would win the Seminole District championship for a second consecutive season. Third, and most important, it kept Heritage atop the 3A-West standings. If form holds, the Pioneers will host every playoff game they play until they either lose or wind up at Liberty University in the title tilt. Liberty, meanwhile, dropped a peg in 3A-West. Currently at #13, there is no guarantee the Minutemen will make the playoffs, let alone get a decent seeding. Heritage Head Coach Brad Bradley seemed unwelcome to the idea of opening the playoffs against Liberty, should that match-up occur. "I wouldn't look forward to playing Liberty again. If they're down there (ratings-wise), that's the best team you'll see [at that level]," said Bradley. "I have as much respect for Coach Watts as I do for anyone in the state of Virginia."