Liberty quarterback Tyler Longerbeam had a Bird Bowl premonition.
He anticipated that Aristotle Howard would break out on the big stage of the regular-season finale Friday.
Howard didn’t disappoint. The senior running back rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries, helping Liberty reach a handful of milestones during its 42-28 victory over the Fauquier Falcons at home in Bealeton.
The Eagles not only won their 10th consecutive Fauquier Times-Democrat
Bird Bowl trophy, they completed a 2012 sweep against Fauquier County teams, clinched a share of the Evergreen District championship and improved their Region II playoff seed.
“It was just unbelievable,” Howard said of the win. “We were just excited all week long, and we knew how much we wanted this.”
Liberty (6-4) became co-champion of the district with Warren County (8-2). Both teams finished with 3-1 records in the Evergreen, while Fauquier fell to 2-2 (7-3 overall).
The Eagles also improved to 15-4 all-time in the Bird Bowl.
“It’s just such a big game,” Eagles coach Sean Finnerty said. “Our kids just get so amped for it.”
Fauquier hasn’t won the regular season finale since 2002.
“I don’t know what it is about this game,” Fauquier defensive coordinator Ryan Bailey said.
Fauquier head coach Jamie Carter declined to speak to the media after the game and left the Liberty building soon after talking to his team in the locker room.
“I don’t know if it’s a mindset that they don’t believe in themselves, or they want it so bad they tense up,” Bailey said of the Falcons’ 10th consecutive loss. “I felt like we were the better team.”
According to record, they were. Fauquier has rarely entered the annual Bird Bowl with a better record than the Eagles, but that was the case this season.
“No matter what Liberty’s record is or how they’re doing, they have our number and play their best game of the year,” Fauquier receiver/defensive back Leif Heltzel said of the Bird Bowl. “We usually don’t play our best.”
Howard played his greatest game this season for Liberty. Prior to Friday, he averaged only 66.2 yards and 4.6 points per game (six touchdowns in nine games). Against Fauquier, he averaged 12.2 yards and 1 point per carry.
“He’s definitely one of the fastest players in the district and he’s probably the shiftiest back that we’ve seen all year,” Heltzel said.
Howard finished with eight runs of at least 15 yards. He was named Liberty’s Bird Bowl MVP.
“I didn’t see his feet stop,” Liberty senior defensive end/fullback Wyatt Teller said.
“This was his breakout game, and I was waiting for it,” Longerbeam said. “I told him before the game started” it would be.
Meanwhile, Teller and the Liberty defense stifled Fauquier’s spread offense. While Heltzel finished with 104 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions to earn Bird Bowl MVP honors for Fauquier, the Falcons struggled to move the ball much of the game and trailed 29-7 late in the third quarter.
“They came up with a good game plan,” Heltzel said. “It seemed like they played a different defensive scheme every play. They were trying to confuse us. … One play they would have a safety over top. Then the next play he would be wide. The next play he’d be press coverage. They threw everything they could at us.”
Liberty played more man-to-man defense under a Cover 2 than in seasons past, but they also used a mix of formations to keep the Falcons guessing.
The Eagles took a 22-0 lead with 4 minutes, 57 seconds remaining in the second quarter thanks to an 18-yard touchdown run by Howard, a 21-yard touchdown run by Longerbeam (Teller two-point conversion) and a 40-yard pass from Longerbeam to Garrett Utterback on a fourth-and-4 situation.
Heltzel then scored an 8-yard touchdown on a pass from Colin Diehl to close Liberty’s lead to 22-7 at halftime, but Howard opened the third quarter with a 51-yard touchdown run. After a 2-yard touchdown run by Diehl, Liberty expanded its lead to 35-14 with 4:19 left in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by Howard.
In the final 90 seconds, Fauquier’s Wes Olinger scored an 11-yard touchdown on a pass from Diehl, Howard scored on a 2-yard touchdown run after gaining 50 yards on the previous play, and Fauquier’s Spicer Sabruno scored a 17-yard touchdown on a pass from Diehl.
Liberty and Fauquier both qualified for the Region II playoffs, but the Eagles have the added benefit of momentum from their convincing win Friday.
“It gets our hopes up,” Eagles lineman Royer Rubio said. “We’re going to try to go all the way.”
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