Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty fullback Rylan Howe tries to run through a Kennedy tackle during Friday’s loss to the Thunderbirds.
After three weeks on the road, Liberty Hawks football head coach Mike Nolte knew his team had to play its best game of the year against last year’s Div. V Central Section champions, the Kennedy-Delano Thunderbirds.
However, the Thunderbirds scored the game’s first touchdown, got the ball back on a fumble, got the ball back on another fumble and added a field goal for a quick 17-0 lead before the Hawks could settle down.
“They are a big and physical team,” Nolte said. “To win against a team like that, you have to everything right. We made some mistakes early on and dug ourselves a pretty big hole. Momentum is a big thing in this game. To have it killed so early is difficult to fight back on. You can’t give good football teams those opportunities. We’ve benefited from it over the years. Tonight, we were on the other end.”
The Thunderbirds also scored on an interception return for a touchdown in Friday’s 38-14 victory over the Hawks. Liberty scored two second half touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to get back into the game.
While Kennedy racked up 178 yards of total offense in the first half, the Hawks were limited to just 45 yards on just four drives. However, the Liberty defense played better in the second half and held the Thunderbirds to 115 yards while the Hawks gained 161 yards, 154 on the ground.
“Our defense did a pretty good job.” Nolte said. “You take the 21 points we gave them, it’s a pretty close game. I feel like we have to clean things up, especially on the offensive end. I’ve got to think it will get better.”
Liberty quarterback Trevor Porter scored both touchdowns on quarterback sneaks. Running back Quentin Stewart rushed for 106 yards and set up the first touchdown with a 67-yard run.
Kennedy had three touchdown drives of 70-yards or more and took six or more plays with two needing nine plays to score. Of Kennedy’s 51 plays, the Thunderbirds ran the ball on 46 of them, averaging almost five yards per rush.
“They did tonight on a few drives what we try to do to people,” Nolte said. “Just keep the ball with long drives down the field. We have to figure out how to get back to that.”
Kennedy had the first possession of the game and two solo tackles by lineman David Portnoff forced a punt. The Hawks got the initial first down with an 11-yard run from Stewart, but they also had to punt.
Kennedy then drove down the field. It took nine-plays for 80 yards to put the first points on the board. The key play was a three-yard run on fourth-and-one. Three plays later, the Thunderbirds scored on an inside run from 38 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Liberty’s Tyler Miller had the ball knocked away and Kennedy recovered at the Liberty 16-yard line.
The Liberty defense forced a fourth-and-one, but allowed a six-yard run. Kennedy scored on the next play for a 14-0 lead.
Three plays into Liberty’s next drive, Porter tried to pitch on the option, but was tackled by two defenders and the pitch went awry. Kennedy recovered at the Liberty 21.
The Liberty defense held up. Landon Howe stuffed Kennedy for a two-yard loss. Rylan Howe stopped Kennedy for a four-yard gain to force third down. Kennedy threw incomplete and settled for a 41-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead 11 seconds into the second quarter.
Liberty went three-and out and the Thunderbirds then drove 72-yards on nine plays to jump out to a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Both teams went scoreless the rest of the half.
Stewart electrified the Liberty crowd with a 67-yard zig-zagging run to the Kennedy two-yard line to open the secnd half. Porter went behind his linemen for the quarterback sneak to get the Hawks on the scoreboard.
The Liberty defense held Kennedy after a 42-yard kickoff return. Howe and Dominic Oberti stuffed Kennedy for a gain of two. Miller made an open field tackle for a four-yard loss and Stewart broke up a pass to force a punt.
However, verything was going right for Kennedy on Friday. The punt was downed at the one-yard line.
On the next play, Avian Pesina picked off Porter and ran it back 22 yards into the end zone for a 31-7 lead.
The Hawks then went on their longest sustained drive of the night. They took 15 plays to go 65 yards. Porter carried for three on fourth-and-one. After a roughing the passer penalty, Nick Anselmo gained five on third-and-one.
On fourth-and-four from the eight, Sam Cato-Scott, on his only carry of the night, broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and broke another to get the first down to the Kennedy two-yard line. Two plays later, Porter scored on another sneak to cut the lead to 31-14 with 1:47 left in the third quarter.
Unfortunately, any chance of a comeback went away when Kennedy found a wide open receiver for a 46-yard touchdown pass for a 38-14 lead.
Both teams didn’t get on the scoreboard and time ran out on the Hawks in dropping to 2-2 on the season.
Liberty tries to get back into the win column Friday against Templeton.