Rare Walters passes lead Liberty back from 16-point deficit to beat Kettle Run
Aaron Walters throws one of his four passes during Liberty's 28-26 win over Kettle Run on Friday. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Aaron Walters carries the ball against Kettle Run, adding to his 124 yards rushing in the game. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Aaron Walters is one of the Liberty Eagles’ lead run blockers.
Somehow he threw for 131 yards and a touchdown Friday.
Naturally, that caught the Kettle Run Cougars off guard. It also cost them a win.
Behind the precision of Walters’ arm, Liberty rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Kettle Run, 28-26, on the road in Nokesville.
While Walters is listed on Liberty’s roster as a quarterback and lines up under center, he mainly has played the role of blocker whenever on the field this season. As the Eagles’ quarterback in their double wing formation, Walters typically pitches the ball to one of three running backs in Liberty’s backfield and then turns around to block for the ball carrier.
That’s how he led the Eagles (5-4) to an upset win last week, 42-14, over Eastern View. He embraced that role again Friday for the first three quarters, but then Liberty coach Sean Finnerty unshackled Walters’ throwing arm against Kettle Run (6-3).
He completed all three of his passes during the final six minutes of the fourth quarter to lead a pair of scoring drives that led Liberty back from a 26-14 deficit.
“I think they think Aaron can’t throw,” Finnerty said. “Aaron can throw. He showed it.”
Nobody can blame the Cougars for assuming Walters wouldn’t throw, though. There wasn’t much contrary evidence available.
Walters entered the game averaging 5.1 passing yards per game. He had only attempted six passes all season, completing two for 41 yards.
True to form, Walters attempted only one pass during the first three quarters Friday, completing it for nine yards. But then he completed passes of 21, 66 and 35 yards during the final six minutes of the game to spark the Eagles’ rally.
“They caught us sleeping a few times and made big plays,” defensive back David Eldridge said.
None was bigger than Walters’ 35-yard pass to Garrett Utterback with less than two minutes remaining and Liberty trailing, 26-21. On second-and-13, he connected with Utterback on a deep post route, giving the Eagles a first down on the Cougars’ 6-yard line.
Two plays later, running back T.J. Hogan scored the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 25.8 seconds remaining.
“Aaron made a beautiful pass,” Utterback said of the 35-yarder. “He can really throw the ball. … He was ready.”
Nobody was ready for Walters, though. Even some of the Eagles were surprised to see him slinging the ball deep and going 4-for-4 on the night.
“A quarterback that we didn’t really practice throwing with all week,” tight end Morgan Estep said. “But to make the plays he did, I wasn’t surprised. He’s a really good athlete.”
Walters also bailed out the Eagles with a 79-yard drive after they fell behind 26-14 with 6:17 remaining in the fourth quarter. Facing second-and-18 after consecutive false start penalties, Walters threw a ball up to Utterback along the sideline, which the receiver made a great play on, leaping for a 21-yard completion.
“A lot of confidence” in Utterback, Walters said. “You can trust somebody like Garrett when you just throw it up to them – go and get it.”
One play later, Walters threw a screen pass to Utterback, who ran the ball up the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown that narrowed the Eagles’ deficit to 26-21.
“I really did not see any hope for us until that screen play,” Utterback said. “It was beautiful blocking. I just had to run, basically. Anybody could have really taken it to the house.”
Utterback finished with 122 yards on three receptions.
“Garrett’s a big playmaker,” Finnerty said. “He’s one of our most dangerous kids with the ball in his hands.”
After the Utterback touchdown, Liberty’s defense knocked the Cougars back six yards on their ensuing possession, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“If we wouldn’t have gotten that stop, we wouldn’t have been able to come back,” Utterback said.
“They stepped up so much in that second half,” Finnerty said of a Liberty defense that held Kettle Run to 226 yards of offense in the game. “They just came off the ball so well.”
The Eagles took over on Kettle Run’s 48-yard line and then drove for the winning touchdown.
“We thought we had them,” Eldridge said. “The game turned around in a matter of minutes.”
Liberty found success passing the ball in the fourth quarter, in part, because it established the run over the first three periods using a double wing formation with two tight ends. Against that formation, Kettle Run used a six-man defensive front with five linebackers/defensive backs directly behind it, scrapping its usual 3-5 defensive set.
“So we were expecting more of the run, and they did" run, Eldridge said. “But good teams do switch it up.”
The Eagles finished with 285 rushing yards before mixing in more pass plays late in the fourth quarter.
“When you’re a corner and all you’ve got to do is look inside and make sure we don’t bounce it outside [on a run], you can relax,” Finnerty said. “I think they kind of took that for granted a little bit and didn’t think we could [throw] without putting [Garrett] Watts in.”
Garrett Watts is typically the Eagles’ starting quarterback. He has 906 yards and 11 touchdowns this season on 61-for-107 passing, but he did not take a snap Friday.
Finnerty gave Walters the chance to throw instead. Walters welcomed the opportunity, but said he was just as content handing the ball off and blocking for his running backs.
“As long as we’re winning games, I’m happy, whether I throw a pass or not,” he said. “I love [blocking in the double wing]. I’ve always loved contact since I played FYF ball. I was always taught to find somebody to hit.”
Walter also carried the ball out of the double wing, running for a team-high 124 yards on 11 carries. Hogan had 74 yards on 21 carries and Jaquan Sinclair had 47 yards on nine carries.
For Kettle Run, De Jackson had 48 yards on 15 carries and Evan Szklennik had 49 yards and a touchdown on two receptions, but Liberty transfers Denzell Champion and Eldridge led the offense. Champion threw for 137 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on 5-for-7 passing, while Eldridge had 85 yards and a touchdown on two receptions.
Kettle Run took a 2-0 lead early in the first quarter with a safety scored when Liberty pushed the ball out of the back of the end zone after a low snap on a punt attempt. Eldridge then returned the ensuing kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown and a 9-0 Cougars lead with 9:55 remaining in the first quarter.
The Cougars took a 16-0 lead with 2:32 left in the first on an screen pass from Champion that Eldridge took for an 81-yard touchdown. Sinclair responded with touchdown runs of 11 and six yards in the second quarter, narrowing Liberty’s deficit to 16-14 at halftime.
Szklennik gave Kettle Run a 19-14 lead with a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter and then Champion threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Szklennik to make the Cougars’ lead 26-14 with 6:17 remaining in the fourth.
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