Liberty’s football team was in the unenviable position of missing its top running backs for its playoff opener against Desert Oasis on Friday.
The Patriots, though, didn’t miss a beat, thanks to a talented offensive line that paved the way for 208 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns as the Patriots dominated the visiting Diamondbacks, 35-0, in the first round of the Class 4A Desert Region playoffs.
“Our offensive line has been one of the strengths of our team all year,” Liberty head coach Rich Muraco said. “When you have two FBS-caliber offensive linemen with Troy (Fautanu) committing to Washington and Brandon (Yates) going to West Virginia, you should be able to control the line of scrimmage. Our other guys do a great job, and our coaching staff does an excellent job.”
The Patriots (6-4), the top seed from the Southeast League, will host Sierra Vista (7-4), the No. 2 seed from the Southwest League, in a region semifinal on Nov. 16.
Caleb Pulu led the Patriots with 92 yards on 12 carries, and Mana Moniz added 18 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
“Those guys really stepped up today,” Fautanu said. “I mean we’re short on running backs, but the guys who stepped up did pretty good today. We just went into this game and did just played how we usually play. The guys run the ball, they make yards, and we score the touchdown. That’s the name of the game.”
Though Pulu didn’t score, he did lead his team down the field for two early scores. Liberty quarterback Kanyon Stoneking found Maurice Hampton on an 8-yard touchdown pass, and Kyle Beaudry scored on a 1-yard run to give the Patriots a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Moniz’s score pushed the lead to 20-0 late in the second quarter.
After that, the Patriots defense lit up the scoreboard.
Lehi Ausage returned an interception 16 yards to push the Patriots lead to 28-0 at halftime. Early in the fourth quarter, Cervontes White snuffed out the Diamondbacks’ best scoring opportunity when he intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it a state-record-tying 105 yards for a touchdown.
White’s return tied the mark set by Battle Mountain’s Andy Ancho in 1985 and is the longest interception return in Class 4A history.
“We were able to get a lot of different kids in the game, and kind of assess some of our younger talent,” Muraco said. “Our defense played real well. I felt like our offense did pretty good in the first half, so it was a good win.”
While the Patriots were able to overpower the Diamondbacks (6-5), two interceptions and numerous penalties kept the Patriots from opening up a bigger lead early in the game.
“As you go along, you have to play closer and closer to a mistake-free game, especially each round of the playoffs,” Muraco said. “The competition gets better and better. We had a couple of penalties that I wasn’t too happy about and a couple of turnovers. We have to clean that stuff up, but we had a lot of backups in.”
Yates is ready to get back to work to help those third- and fourth-string backs get better so his team can keep playing.
“I just want to go back, watch film tomorrow, and get better every day,” he said. “We are getting short on running backs, so we need to get everybody ready, So basically, we just have work harder every single practice, and open the hole so they can see it better in practice.”
Christian Vaughn had 73 yards on 21 carries to lead the Diamondbacks.