Liberty makes a statement
Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune Liberty running back breaks away from Kerman defenders for his first touchdown of the game. He scored four total touchdowns, three rushing, to break the school record for rushing touchdowns in a career.
The Liberty Hawks football team knew it was going to be in for a battle against the Kerman Lions on Senior Night.
The Hawks prepared to play their first close game (within 21 points) in 15 straight games. However, Liberty scored seven straight times and turned a 14-point deficit into a 50-28 victory Friday night.
“We’ve been down before,” senior lineman Nick Hayes said. “We knew what we had to do if we got down again and it’s to fight and keep going and stay positive.”
With the win, the Hawks (8-1, 3-0 NSL) assured will battle for the North Sequoia League title against fellow NSL undefeated Chowchilla on Friday night.
“That was a signature win,” head coach Mike Nolte said. “That’s one a lot of people circled on their calendar — us and them. It was definitely a big win for us.”
The Hawks have won five straight games since a Week 4 loss to Kennedy-Delano.
“Ever since the loss, we’ve put our hearts and minds into the season,” Hayes said. “It was Senior Night. We just went out there and played our game.”
“That Kennedy loss taught the kids a lot,” Nolte said. “That was a long time ago. We haven’t been challenged yet until tonight. For the kids to have that loss in their back pocket and have that fight when they needed to is very special.”
The Hawks got a record breaking performance from senior Wyatt Roth. He rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns. He caught a 73-yard touchdown catch-and-run that put the game out of reach. He also had six tackles and 1.5 quarterback sacks. He broke the school record for touchdowns in a career with 50 (Brandon Graham, 2005-2006).
“Wyatt is a pretty good player,” Nolte said. “There are other good players. I’m sure everybody in our league respects what he had done against them. We’ll put him up for the MVP. He still has another game to go to make his case more.”
When Liberty rushing attack stalled, the passing game excelled. Bradley Miller passed for a career high 176 yards.
“Bradley stepped up and was on target,” Nolte said. “Aramel Villa is fast and he can run. Bradley threw it right on him. It was great to see that. He had a couple of big throws to Colton. The throw to Wyatt was huge and it iced the game, I think.”
Kerman started off the game looking like they were the team to beat. The Lions opened the game with a five-play, 68-yard touchdown drive. Four plays into Liberty’s opening drive, Ryan Troutman picked off Miller. The Lions scored three plays later for a 14-0 lead justfour minutes into the game.
However, the game settled down for the Hawks. Liberty scored on eight of its next 11 drives. Meanwhile, the Liberty defense forced six Kerman punts. In those drives, the Lions gained just 31 yards.
The Hawks cut the Lions’ lead in half less than a minute later. Roth went around the left side and scored from 40 yards out for a 14-7 Kerman lead with 7:22 left in the first quarter.
After a three-yard Kerman punt, the Hawks went to work with a nine-play, 59-yard drive. Roth gained 12 yards on second down and Tyler Miller gained another 12 to move the ball to the 10-yard line. Two plays later, Miller scored from seven yards out. Unfortunately, Bradley Moon’s point after went wide, but the Hawks trailed by one.
The Hawks forced a three-and-out and took over at their own 30. Bradley Miller started the drive with a perfect pass down the sideline to Aramel Villa for a 37-yard gain. Liberty then took its time to take the lead, eventually stalling at the Kerman seven-yard line.
Nolte sent out Moon for his first field goal attempt in his two years as the Liberty kicker. Moon nailed a 24-yarder for a 16-13 lead with 7:41 left in the half.
“They looked good and we weren’t tackling very good,” Nolte said. “I was worried, for sure. It just shows a lot about our football team. We learned about the football team in the first half. We’re fighters. We’re not just going to roll over. I’ve seen it a lot this year with teams we’ve played against. We’ve seen them fold their tents. I’m happy it didn’t happen for us. I’m happy we showed the character that I expected us to show. A lot of the kids have played through the big games we’ve had in the past. We counted on that leadership tonight and it showed tonight. I’m really proud of them tonight.”
The Hawks went on an eight-play, 50-yard scoring drive. On fourth-and-goal from the three, Rylan Howe tried to score up the middle. He was stuck in a pile and the ball was stripped out. The ball went right to the feet of Colton Cardoza, who picked up the ball and jumped into the end zone for a Liberty touchdown and a 23-14 lead.
On the first drive of the second half, Miller kick started the drive with a 38-yard pass to Cardoza to the Kerman 17-yard line.
Three plays later, Howe found the end zone for a 30-13 lead two-and-a-half minutes into the second half.
Later in the third quarter, the Hawks found the end zone again. Facing a third-and-13, Nolte called time out to figure out the next play. Miller found Roth on a wheel route for a quick pass. Roth then turned on the afterburners and outran the Kerman defense for a 73-yard touchdown run for a 36-14 lead with 2:41 left in the third quarter.
After a Cardoza punt, Tyler Miller picked off Kerman quarterback Gavin Layton for his fifth interception of the season, which ties a school record.
Miller gained 19 yards on third-and-nine and Roth finished the drive with a run around the left side and leapt into the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown run, which tied the school record.
The Lions drove 80 yards on nine plays to score their first touchdown since early in the second quarter. The touchdown cut Liberty’s lead to 43-20 with 7:17 left in the fourth quarter.
The Hawks fired right back. Roth gained 19 yards and Quentin Stewart banged his way for a 22-yard gain. Roth scored his fourth total touchdown of the game and his third rushing touchdown from 14-yards out for his 50th career rushing touchdown and a 50-20 lead with five minutes left in the game.
William Bucaroff picked off Layton on Kerman’s next possession, but the Hawks turned the ball over on downs.
The Lions scored two plays later to cut the lead to 50-28 with 54 seconds left in the game.