Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty’s Quentin Stewart makes a Firebaugh tackler miss during Friday’s victory. Stewart rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns in a 53-35 victory.
FIREBAUGH — The Liberty Hawks football team took advantage of their conditioning and rolled to 29 unanswered points to run away with a 53-35 victory over the Firebaugh Eagles to open the 2019 season.
The Hawks set a school record with six turnovers against the Eagles with five interceptions — two by Sam Cato-Scott and Steven Protzman and another from Landon Howe — and a fumble return that was turned into six points by Cato-Scott.
“We knew they were going to put the ball in the air and we knew we were going to play some good run defense,” head coach Mike Nolte said. “We forced them to put it in the air and our guys stepped up.”
After allowing 192 yards in the first half, the Liberty defense held the Eagles to just 97 yards in the second half, including just 88 yards in the air.
Meanwhile, following in the traditional Nolte blueprint of finding top-flight running backs, Quentin Stewart rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Hawks. The total is tied for the fourth-highest in school history. The Hawks finished with 369 yards rushing as a team.
However, it was the pivotal fourth quarter that turned the game around. While many Eagles were on their backs trying to work out cramps on their legs, the Hawks were upright and kept battling on.
After a field position-changing punt by Bryan Jauregui, the Hawks turned a seven-point deficit into an 18-point victory.
“I didn’t know how we were going to be conditioning-wise coming into this game,” Nolte said. “We work hard at it. I thought last week, we were a little tired in the scrimmage. Maybe the momentum swings of the game made us keep fighting. That kind of drives us. Fighting back is huge. We grew up tonight as a football team. Playing-wise, we have some young guys, experience-wise, in some spots. Games like this helps them grow.”
The season didn’t get off to a good start for the Hawks. Firebaugh’s Alexis Muro returned the opening kickoff untouched for 92-yards into the end zone for a 7-0 lead just 17 seconds into the game.
However, after Liberty took the ensuing kickoff, Stewart returned the favor. He took the ball on a sweep to the left and outran the Eagles’ defense for a 78-yard touchdown run on his first touch of the game.
However, five plays later, Firebaugh’s Steven Defrancesco tossed a ball high into the end zone that his receiver, Frank Munoz, caught over Liberty corner Tyler Miller for a 14-7 lead less than two minutes into the game.
After a Liberty punt, Firebaugh took over. Howe, then, picked off DeFrancesco at the Firebaugh 20-yard line.
Two plays later, Stewart found the end zone from 18 yards out to tie the score after the second of six Steven Pennington’s extra points midway through the first quarter.
Keyed by a 32-yard screen pass, Firebaugh moved the ball into the red zone. On fourth-and-3 from the nine, Cato-Scott stepped in front of a Defrancesco pass for an interception.
Liberty was forced to punt and Firebaugh drove down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. The six-play drive was capped by a three-yard touchdown run for a 21-14 lead eight seconds into the second quarter.
The Hawks started driving down the field. Quarterback Trevor Porter completed his only pass to Stewart for 13-yards. Stewart gained 10 on a sweep and Nick Anselmo went up the middle for 20 yards.
Stewart gained seven on third down for a first down to the five-yard line. On the next play, Tyler Miller scored to tie the game at 21.
A tackle for loss by Porter and Brad Wallace forced a punt. The Firebaugh punter dropped the snap, escaped the oncoming rushed and got the ball away for an eight-yard kick.
The Hawks finished a nine-yard drive to the 17-yard line with a 34-yard field goal from Aramel Villa for a 24-21 lead with 2:06 left in the half.
Defrancesco led the Eagles down the field on a 10-play, 74-yard drove with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 41 seconds left for a 28-24 halftime lead.
The Hawks had to punt to open the second half. The Eagles drove into Liberty territory before Cato-Smith broke up a fourth-down pass.
However, Liberty was forced to punt and Jauregui dropped the snap and fell on the ball at the 10-yard line. The Eagles scored on the next play for a 35-24 lead midway through the third quarter.
The two teams traded punts before Jauregui got a hold of one that changed the game. From his 33, Jauregui launched one over the head of the Firebaugh returner. The ball was finally downed at the 11-yard line for a 56-yard punt and a field-changer.
“That was a huge turning point in the momentum of the game,” Nolte said. “We were in the situation where we needed to play field position. We needed to get them on their half of the field. They played so much of the game on our half of the field. Fortunately for us, some good things happened.”
Dominic Oberti and Wallace stuffed Firebaugh for a loss of two. Owen Burgin and Anselmo sacked Defrancesco at the four. Firebaugh lined up in punt formation. Oberti opened the hole for Howe to break through. Howe jumped and got a piece of the punt. Firebaugh landed on the ball in the end zone for a safety.
Liberty then scored on its next three possessions.
Stewart gained two on third-and-one to start a touchdown drive. Anselmo broke off a 20-yard gain and Stewart gained 13 to the 11-yard line.
Two plays later, Anselmo went up the middle for a six-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 35-33 after Pennington’s extra point with 7:50 left in the fourth.
Two Firebaugh plays later, Burgin forced a fumble and Cato-Scott was there for the recovery. He scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown and a 39-35 lead.
After the ensuing kickoff, Protzman caught a tipped pass for an interception to give the Hawks possession at the nine-yard line.
It took Stewart just one carry to sweep around the left side and dive to the pylon for the touchdown and a 46-35 lead with 6:26 left in the fourth.
Defracesco led the Eagles into Liberty territory after passes for 12 and 18 yards. However, Cato-Scott stepped in front of another Defracesco pass for his second interception of the game. He returned it 18 yards on his third turnover of the game.
Porter led the Hawks down the field with six straight running plays. Anselmo had the big play with a 34-yard gain to the Firebaugh 11. Four plays later, Porter called his own number and scored from two yards out for the game-clinching touchdown. Pennington’s extra point secured a 53-35 lead with 1:24 left in the game.
Protzman closed out the game with his second interception of the game. Porter took a knee to run out the clock.
Liberty continues on the road Friday at Mendota to complete its west side journey.