Liberty was able to shut down one of the best high school football teams in the country for three quarters Friday night, but the Patriots couldn’t make the defensive stand that could have helped pull the upset.
Hamilton (Ariz.), the No. 28 team in the country according to USA Today, strung together a 15-play drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock in the final quarter and culminated in a game-winning touchdown as the Huskies escaped with a 14-10 victory at Liberty.
“They’re a great team and a great program,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “They saw their opportunity and they were able to churn out the yards and eat the clock and they got the touchdown.”
When Hamilton got the ball at its own 33-yard line with 10:30 to play and trailing 10-7, senior Tyrell Smith had only five carries for 13 yards. The Huskies wisely put the game on his shoulders, or more specifically, his legs.
Smith carried 12 times on the decisive drive for 30 yards, including two short fourth-down conversions, as the Huskies methodically moved downfield.
He also caught an 18-yard pass down the middle on third-and-20 from midfield to help keep the drive alive.
“The coaches go to me a lot, and I’ve got that mindset in those situations that I have to put the team on my back when we’ve got to win. I just gave it all I had there,” Smith said.
“There was a lot of frustration (before that drive). When we went in the locker room it was completely silent. We were all down on ourselves. We knew we had to pick it up. “
With Liberty (1-3) stacking the box to stop the run, Sam Sasso found David DeSilva wide open for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 2:23 remaining.
“That was just desire and a little bit of want-to,” Hamilton coach Steve Belles said. “Liberty played well tonight and we were fortunate enough to find a way to win. When you can’t get stuff going and you’re used to getting stuff going, it’s frustrating for coaches and players. Sometimes you just have to try to dig something out and we dug it out.”
Liberty surged to a 10-0 lead early and led 10-7 at the half, but squandered several opportunities to extend the lead.
Austin Fitzgerald missed a 33-yard field goal with 2:43 left in the first quarter, and Tyler Newman was intercepted in the end zone in the closing seconds of the half after a Patriots touchdown was called back due to a holding penalty.
“We really felt like going into halftime we should have been up like 24-7, but that’s part of the game and that’s part of learning how to be an elite program,” Muraco said. “You’ve got to be able to capitalize on opportunities and not make mistakes because in games like this, one play could make all the difference between a win and a loss.”
Then there was the anguish of watching Hamilton’s final drive.
“It was hard to sit on the sideline waiting as an offensive coach,” Muraco said of Hamilton’s clock-milking march.
When the Patriots finally did get the ball back with just over two minutes remaining, four straight incompletions sealed their fate.