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It had been three years since Liberty last hosted a playoff game.
Obviously, when the Minutemen hosted Lord Botetourt in their Regional playoff opener, they wanted to make sure that everyone got their money’s worth.
No fan left this one early, as the Cavs stormed back in the final minutes of the game. Liberty was able to hang on for dear life, with Vonte Harper’s last-second interception finally dashing the Botetourt hopes.
This matchup carried some disappointment with it before the opening kickoff.
Lord B quarterback Emory Straub appeared in street clothes, much to the consternation of the Cav faithful. Straub had been injured during Botetourt’s final regular season game and was forced to sit out the final game of his senior season.
Meanwhile, Liberty’s two-way starter, Kordero Thompson, was spotted limping along the Liberty bench, still hurting from an opening-play-of-the-game encounter during the Jefferson Forest game.
Further depleting the Liberty receiver corps and defensive backfield, Carlton Payne was unavailable.
Payne has shown that it takes a lot of manpower to bring him down when he’s got the ball. This past Friday, all it took was the flu bug.
Not to worry. On the LB side, Dalton Hargrove stepped in for Straub. The sophomore played quite well in relief.
On the Liberty side, the Minutemen passing game was obviously hampered by the absence of the two big targets. Defensively, Harper, Malcolm McCoy and Kody Outhong stepped in admirably.
When Outhong, who has played sparingly this season was told he would be starting in the defensive backfield, he “didn’t blink an eye,” according to Watts.
Maybe it was getting all the new players settled, but the game was a snoozer in the early going.
Liberty finally drew first blood as quarterback Tyler Bowyer scored when he kept on the option, rolling in from seven yards out.
Bowyer’s touchdown capped a 67 yard march that featured a 36 yard leaping catch by Anthony Reynolds, the only part of the Liberty receiving troika that was still healthy.
After Logan Johnson’s kickoff resulted in a touchback, Botetourt set up shop on its own 20.
Hargrove took a three-step drop and fired a pass to the left flat.
An alert Thomas Clark was reading all the way and cleanly stepped in front of the intended target, jetting toward the end zone.
Although halfback Josh Columbini got a bead on Clark, his hit only served to knock the Liberty sophomore past the pylon for the score and a 14-0 Minutemen lead.
By the way, those Liberty touchdowns came within eight seconds of one another.
Botetourt responded two possessions later. Following a partial block of a Johnson punt, the Cavs found themselves near midfield.
From there, Columbini went to town, dashing off a 21-yard burst.
A few plays later, Zack Santolla pounded for another 7 before Columbini went around left end for a 14-yard touchdown to cut the lead in half.
On the possession immediately following the Cav touchdown, Lavarta “Tank” Tanner and Clark ran as though they took personal umbrage at Botetourt.
Tanner pounded the inside. Clark carried two Cav defenders a good distance in chinging up 15 yards. Another blazing run by Clark netted 44 yards.
Newcomer Josh Smith added some productive carries as well.
Finally, Tanner’s nine-yard bull-rush capped the 76-yard, 8-play drive.
While the Liberty backfield demonstrated a nice blend of speed and power, the respectable stats it earned (220 yards on 42 carries) wouldn’t have been possible without the supporting cast.
Center Denis Kiely, guards Barry Heck and Joey Looney, tackles James Spinner and Ricky Dooley and tight end Dylan Hatcher outdueled their larger Botetourt opponents.
The second half featured a lot of three-and-outs.
The closest either team came to scoring came when Cav Troy McNeill’s 37-yard field goal attempt sailed wide to the left.
It stayed a possession game, until Liberty started to put together a nice, clock-eating drive midway through the fourth quarter.
Clark broke free off the option to pick up a first down at the LB 28 with five minutes to go in the game.
On the next play from scrimmage, a miscue resulted in a fumble.
“I looked at (fullback) Brandon Sparrow and he didn’t have the ball,” recalled Coach Watts. “Then I looked at Tyler and he didn’t have it either.”
That presented a problem, since one of them was supposed to have it.
Instead LB’s Bonnie Costa had it and another chance for the Cavs.
While LB wound up turning the ball over on downs, they would get the ball back with 1:30 left. This time, Hargrove struck paydirt, connecting on mid-length passes to Austin Huffman, Jonathan DeHart and to Rodney Cooper for the score, with 19 seconds remaining.
On the following kickoff, all the Botetourt players massed in the middle and McNeill tapped a softie, which trailed the scrum.
With Liberty unable to break the wall, the kicker pounced on the ball for a Cav recovery.
Watts was incensed that no flag was thrown on a play that is prohibited. He even called a timeout to try and explain to the refs that the play should have been thrown out.
The crew, however, was under the impression that such a tactic was only outlawed at the college level.
With their last gasp, the Cavs tried to get one last score.
“We gave them a little life there at the end,” said Watts.
But, Hargrove’s toss to DeHart was broken up by Clark. On the last play, Harper stepped in front of Cooper to basket-catch the interception and secure the win.
“Hats off to Lord Botetourt,” said Watts. “They fought hard from start to finish.”
Watts also tipped his hat to his own charges. “These kids have risen to the occasion week in and week out,” he said.
-The win gives the Minutemen an overall mark of 7-4, while Botetourt fell to 3-8. Additionally, LB was denied its first playoff win since 1984.
-Tanner seems to have mended quite well from the arm injury that kept him out of most of the season. No doubt, his return is most welcomed.
-The absence of LB quarterback Straub wasn’t seen as a boon for Liberty. The feeling was that the matchups favored LB going to the air more than to the ground game. For the most part, the defense responded.
-Linebacker Michael Bowyer was seemingly in on every stop.
-Linemen Barry Heck, Brandon Sparrow and Thomas Schacter put some hits on Hargrove that he is probably still feeling.
-Botetourt’s Hargrove should be one to keep an eye on in the future. Only a sophomore, the southpaw played
QB with poise beyond his years.
-A Liberty University scout was spotted at the game. Word is that he was there to give a look to Big Bird Sparrow, who is only a junior.
-The guess here is, if Sparrow keeps up the work in the weight room, there will be plenty of teams scouting him.
-Kicker Logan Johnson has become Mister Automatic on PATs. In some years, the Liberty bench would hold its collective breath during PAT attempts. Johnson seems to have it down PAT (ba da bum).
-The defensive backfield tandem of Outhong and McCoy give up a collective 21 inches of height to the duo of Thompson and Payne.