Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty running back Colton Ferreira gets upended during a second quarter run in Friday’s loss to the Firebaugh Eagles.
After the Liberty Hawks football team scored two first quarter touchdowns, the Firebaugh Eagles owned the second and third quarter enough to hold off a fourth quarter comeback and hand the Hawks a rare season-opening loss.
Liberty went into Friday’s game with four straight season-opening victories, but fell a two-point conversion shy of tying the score in a 28-26 loss. Liberty last lost a season opener in 2011 to Corcoran.
“We had a couple of bad plays in the second quarter that resulted in great field position for them,” head coach Mike Nolte said. “They capitalized on it. We had a good drive going and they took the ball out of our guys’ hands and ran it to midfield. They had the momentum and came out in the second half and did a good job against us. They had us on our heels and we didn’t respond real well.”
The Hawks out-did everything, but the final score against the Eagles. Liberty earned 25 first downs to Firebaugh’s 13. Liberty outrushed Firebaugh 235-74, had more total yards (332-248), ran more plays (76-50) and were more efficient on third downs (6-of-13 compared to 1-of-10). However, Firebaugh threw for 174 yards and three touchdowns, all from 25 yards or more.
“We are going to do a good job against the run when they put two backs and a tight end,” Nolte said. “They did their damage when they spread us out and toss it around. We have to a better job of defending that.”
Firebaugh quarterback Noey Garcia wasn’t efficient completing passes (47 percent completion), but his 11 completions went for 155 yards and two scores. Jesh Gutierrez threw the third touchdown on a halfback pass. Tylor Palmer caught seven passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Hawks relied on their bruising running game to get back into the game. Christian Baker led three ball carriers with more than 40 yards rushing. He rushed for 82 yards and three touchdowns. Kaleb Roth rushed for 63 yards and quarterback Markie Brandt ran for 44 yards and a touchdown.
Liberty forced a three-and-out keyed by a quarterback sack from Ethan Clark on Firebaugh’s opening drive.
The Hawks drove 62-yards on 11-plays to score their first touchdown of the season on their first drive of the season.
Kaleb Roth carried for 13 yards and a first down an third-and-one. Brandt found Wyatt Roth for a 22-yard catch-and-run. On fourth-and-two, Brandt carried himself to the seven-yard line and a first down. Two plays later, Baker carried from a yard out to score a touchdown with 5:47 left in the first quarter. Michael Hamman hit the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Another three-and-out led to another Liberty scoring drive. Starting at the 41-yard line, after a holding penalty, Brandt hit Roth for a 15-yard gain. Roth got the first down with a seven-yard run.
Tahner Green ran around the right side and was stopped at the one for a 13-yard gain. Two plays later, Brandt scored from a yard out for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 2:30 left in the first quarter.
Firebaugh got its first first down on a pass interference penalty when Green intercepted Garcia. However, the drive ended when Garcia threw incomplete on fourth down.
Liberty was forced to punt from its own 38-yard line. However, a bad snap over Hamman’s head put the ball deep in Liberty territory. Hamman jumped on the ball at the two-yard line. Two plays later, Firebaugh scored to cut the Liberty lead in half.
On the next drive, Firebaugh intercepted Brandt at midfield to begin its next drive in Liberty territory.
On the next play, Garcia handed off to Gutierrez. Gutierrez ran to the right, stopped and threw a long pass down the sideline. Palmer jumped to catch the ball and broke a tackle for the touchdown.
The extra point tied the game at 14.
Liberty responded with a long drive, beginning at its 20-yard line. Brandt threw a first down to Angel Cervantes for eight-yards. Roth ran for four yards and a face mask penalty added 15-yare yards.
Colton Ferreira added spark to the offense while giving Roth a rest. He ran for eight yards and a first down. After a Baker four-yard run, Ferreira gained nine for a first down. He gained four more to move the ball to the 10-yard line.
On the next play, Green took the ball around the right end, but was stripped of the ball to end the drive.
“We jumped out, but had some bad things happen and didn’t respond very well,” Nolte said. “We are a young team and we have to grow up a little bit. Things like this will help us do that. Everything is going to be how you respond to this in practice and preparation. We have to be able to get off the mat.”
The Liberty defense held and forced a Firebaugh punt after a Brett Cazares sack. Both teams had possessions without a score before the half.
Liberty came out of the second half and went three-and-out.
Firebaugh went into the spread and passed its way to the end zone. Beginning at the Liberty 39, the Eagles drove 61-yards on five plays, four passes, and culminated in a 25-yard touchdown pass to Gutierrez for a 21-14 lead three minutes into the second half.
After a Liberty interception, Firebaugh drove 69 yards on eight plays for another touchdown. The key play was a four-yard pass completion on fourth down to keep the drive going. Garcia finished the drive with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Palmer.
Liberty tried to come back before the end of the third quarter. Brandt completed 10-yard passes to Cervantes and Greyson Hoelzel for first downs. Baker ran for another 10-yards and a first down, but the Hoelzel was sacked on fourth down.
The Liberty defense forced a three-and-out and the offense responded. Kaleb Roth ran for 19 yards and a first down. Baker broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage for a 25-yard gain to the eight-yard line.
Two plays later, Baker scored from three yards out for a 28-20 Firebaugh lead after the extra point was missed.
Javier Lopez recovered a Firebaugh fumble at the Eagles’ 35-yard line, but the Hawks moved backwards and punted on fourth-and-36.
The defense allowed two first downs, but held tough after Baker sacked Garcia on third down from the Hawks’ 37.
From their own 21, Roth started the drive with a five-yard run. Brandt gained 10 more yards and 15 more added after a late hit penalty.
On third-and-16, Brandt hit Wyatt Roth for a 22-yard gain and a first down. Baker broke off a 12-yard run to the 21-yard line.
Ferreira gained five and Kaleb Roth gained six to the 10-yard line. Brandt hit Hoelzel for eight-yards to the two. Baker punched it in from the two for a 28-26 Firebaugh lead with 2:18 left in the game.
“I’m proud of our kids for coming back,” Nolte said. “It showed a lot that they will keep fighting.
They have the heart of a champion. My team showed me a lot tonight with that.”
On the two-point conversion, Wyatt Roth went around the right end, but couldn’t find running room.
He leaped for the end zone, but was stopped six-inches short of the tying score.
The Liberty defense forced a three-and-out, but the Hawks ran out of time for a go-ahead score.
“We said in practice numerous times, when we take the field against people, it’s a big game for them,” Nolte said. “It has to be a big game for us, as well. We’re going to face good football teams.
One of them was tonight. They were good enough to take advantage of our mistakes and were caught reeling and didn’t respond fast enough.”
The Hawks host Mendota, who was a 36-0 victory over Orestimba-Newman, Friday at 7 p.m.