Silverado was poised to take the lead after driving into Liberty territory early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Sunrise Region quarterfinal playoff game.
But Patriots senior Kai Nacua came up with a big play when third-ranked Liberty needed it most, darting into the backfield and chopping the ball away from scrambling Skyhawk quarterback Marquise Edward.
Ka’imi Batoon recovered the fumble for the Patriots at the SIlverado 44. Three plays later, Nacua scrambled and broke free for a 43-yard touchdown run to put Liberty in control, and the host Patriots went on to stop the Skyhawks, 33-14.
Liberty coach Rich Muraco said having Nacua come through in a key moment was nothing new for the senior.
“Kai has been doing that all year,” Muraco said. “He makes big plays. In my opinion, he’s the best player on the field every Friday night. And when we needed him to make a big play, he came through tonight.”
Liberty (9-1) moves on to host Canyon Springs next Friday at 7 p.m. in the Sunrise semifinals.
Nacua said on the play he forced the turnover, his assignment was actually to just be in coverage.
“I was in the flat on one of his receivers,” Nacua said. “I saw he had rolled out so I just came down and tried to make a play.”
Beyond Nacua’s defensive heroics, he also keyed the offense, rushing for 140 yards and four touchdowns on just eight carries, while also passing for 73 yards.
On the touchdown that followed the turnover, Liberty faced third and 10 at the 43, and the Skyhawks came storming after Nacua on a blitz.
“I saw that on our passes they kept blitzing from the weak side,” Nacua said. “ So I looked back and saw the opening and just took off.”
Muraco said the majority of Nacua’s four touchdowns were not part of some master scheme for the Patriots.
“Two or three of our touchdowns were on busted plays,” Muraco said. “It was just Kai making it happen. They weren’t designed plays. It was just scramble and score a touchdown.”
Despite Nacua’s propensity to improvise for scores, the Skyhawks’ formidable rushing attack — keyed by workhorse Alex Cater — kept them in the game.
Liberty appeared in control after Nacua capped the first drive of the second half with a 10-yard touchdown run to give the Patriots a 19-6 advantage.
But Silverado answered after an odd sequence where the Skyhawks completed an 18-yard pass only to fumble at the 1-yard line. On the fumble, the ball bounded out of the back of the endzone for a touchback.
Liberty took possession at the 20, but fumbled on the ensuing play and Silverado’s Ryan Contorelli recovered at the Patriot 9-yard line. Cater rushed for a TD on the next play, and after a two-point conversion Silverado had trimmed the deficit to five.
Cater then powered the Skyhawks next drive, as Silverado marched from its own 20 to the Liberty 31, before Nacua forced the fumble to thwart the Skyhawks threat.
Cater finished with 175 yards rushing on 36 carries.
“They did a great job,” Muraco said of Silverado’s performance. “They found something they are good at this year and they hung their hat on it. There were no surprises to us. We knew they were going to come in and pound the ball. They did an amazing job.
“But I’m proud of the way our kids responded. They didn’t panic when things got close. Then we were able to pull away at the end. But we have some things to work on if we want to advance far in the playoffs.”
Nacua agreed with the outcome.
“Its a win, but it’s not one I’m happy with. I know we could have played better,” said Nacua. “But we are going to keep improving. I just want to keep it going and make it to the state championship.”