Liberty High School’s defense held Freedom High School’s offense to 27 total yards in the second half, and used two rushing touchdowns, from Matavai Canady, to propel the Lions to a 21-7 victory in the 17th Bell Game last Friday night.
It was Liberty’s first win in the rivalry since 2005, and gave the Lions, who are 8-2, 3-2 in the Bay Valley Athletic League (BVAL), eight wins in a season for the first time since 1967.
Tied at seven going into halftime, after Sean Pinson’s 23-yard touchdown run for the Falcons, Liberty’s defense allowed no plays longer than 15 yards over the final two quarters, and kept the ball in Freedom (6-4, 3-2) territory for most of the second half. The Lions continued to play a field position game offensively, until they broke through, with one minute and 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter, on a five-yard score by Canady, to take a 14-7 lead they would not relinquish.
“We played with patience, and stuck to our game plan, knowing it was going to be a defensive battle,” said Liberty Head Coach Jeff Walters, who has now won 13 games in his first two seasons at the helm. “We finally broke through offensively there (late in the third quarter), and were just able to control field position after that as well.”
The Liberty defense protected the lead by getting after Freedom quarterback Joe Sweeney, and clogging lanes in the run game. The Lions sacked Sweeney five times, including back-to-back sacks by Alex Espinoza and Trevor Robinson in the fourth quarter, to keep moving the Falcons backwards.
Liberty opted to punt multiple times near midfield or in Freedom territory, and junior punter Stirling Strong responded by pinning the Falcons deep in their own territory each time, giving the Lions’ defense a long field to defend. That resulted in a short field repeatedly for the Liberty offense, and they took advantage when Canady scored again, this time from one yard out to give the Lions their final points of the night.
Canady’s touchdown came one play after quarterback Joseph Tolentino was able to convert on a fourth-and-inches, a decision that reflected the coaching staff’s confidence in not only their offensive line, but also their defense had they been unable to get the first down.
“The entire staff made that decision together,” said Walters. “We were confident in getting the first down, but also felt good about making them go 98 yards for a touchdown if we didn’t pick it up.”
Freedom moved the ball near midfield immediately following Canady’s final score, but a lateral from Brandon Birk to Scotty Sanders ended with a fumble from Sanders and a recovery by Liberty’s Ravin Nasilai with two minutes and 10 seconds left in the game.
“It was just a total team effort defensively,” said Walters, referring to the ability to shut the Falcons out in the second half. “We challenged them in the days leading up to the game to limit big plays and make them try to drive the field, and they responded.”
Liberty took the initial lead of the game with three minutes remaining in the first half when senior Willie Williams took a handoff out an A-11 formation. Williams covered easily over 100 yards on the 42-yard touchdown run, starting to his right, backtracking around the defense to the left sideline, and then breaking through the middle towards the right pylon for the electrifying score. Freedom tied the game on Pinson’s score just over two minutes later, but that would be all for the Falcons.
Liberty and Freedom finished in a tie for second place, the highest-ever finish in the BVAL for the Lions.
Freedom hosts Monte Vista this Friday night in a first-round playoff game, while Liberty hosts Amador Valley on Saturday night.