Friday felt like old times for the Liberty football dynasty. Forget the sub. 500 record, the close losses, including one to Fauquier, and the offensive struggles of this 2-4 season.
The Eagles dominated the 27th Bird Bowl against Fauquier, winning 22-0 last Friday in Bealeton and closing out their season in a party mood.
“Oh yeah,” said coach Travis Buzzo when asked if he was pleased. “We played a rival and found a way to win with all the ups and downs we had this year.”
Liberty now leads the Bird Bowl Series 23-4. In all games against each other, Liberty leads 29-8. Fauquier won 21-14 in a non-conference game earlier in the year.
As is Bird Bowl tradition, a tide of surging, screaming Eagles thrust the Bird Bowl trophy aloft in a postgame ceremony. A few called out “18,” signifying the Eagles’ 18th straight Bird Bowl win.
In a game that was expected to be a tossup, Liberty’s defense was simply ferocious. Falcon quarterback J.T. Diehl finished 5-for-28 for 50 yards and three interceptions. At one point he threw 13 straight incompletions.
Meanwhile, Liberty senior quarterback Dylan Bailey shined in his first full game since returning from a preseason ankle injury. Bailey, who split snaps the week before against Handley, peppered the field with powerful passes, completing 21 of 34 for 229 yards and a 48-yard touchdown to Keegan Shipe.
Shipe, who was named Liberty’s Bird Bowl MVP, caught three passes for 92 yards and also had two interceptions. Other standouts were Wyatt Hicks, who caught eight passes for 45 yards, and kicker Nick Paratore, who scored the eventual winning points on a 28-yard field goal shortly before halftime, and nailed field goals of 35 and 23 yards.
Sammy Marouse added a breakaway touchdown run of 69 yards with 3:34 left.
The game got off to a rocky start for Liberty, which fumbled the opening short Fauquier kickoff, with the Falcons taking over on the LHS 39. Fauquier reached the LHS 23 thanks to one first down. Diehl’s 40-yard field goal attempt was no good.
That was Fauquier’s offensive high water mark of the night. The Falcons had two first downs in the first half as Liberty’s formidable defense kept Diehl and the Falcons grounded.
“We kept it simple. They flew around and played confident,” said Buzzo of his hungry defensive. “We gave them a different look from what they’d seen previously. We made the box look like a 3-4, instead of a 4-2, which we did the first time,” said Buzzo referring to the number of down linemen and linebackers.
While Liberty scored five times it wasn’t easy. Twice the Eagles were denied on goal-line stops. The first time Mason Gay was hit hard inside the 1 on fourth down. A subsequent drive ended at the 15, and the next one died when Bailey’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Evan Jackson at the FHS 2-yard line.
Liberty opted for a field goal the next time as Paratore drilled a 28-yarder with 2:44 left in the half for a 3-0 lead. “We were 0-for-2 in the red zone and needed to make some points. It calmed everyone down to put points on the board,” Buzzo said. “Nick has been good for us.”
Liberty made it 10-0 on its next possession when Shipe beat a defender for a 48-yard TD pass from Bailey, then high-stepped into the end zone. “It was a shot play for Keegan. Dylan escaped pressure and Keegan was past coverage and able to score,” said Buzzo.
Paratore added a 35-yard field goal with no time left for a 13-0 halftime lead. Paratore’s 23-yard field goal with 1:56 in the third made it 16-0.
Marouse added the final touch by breaking numerous tackles for a 69-yard TD rumble.
“I felt really good for him,” Buzzo said of Marouse, who played quarterback in Bailey's absence. “We planned all year to get him some running back reps. Then he’s forced into being the No. 1 QB. He did a great job for us. He put us in a position to win every game.”
Fauquier’s Bird Bowl MVP was Evan Jackson, who had an interception, caught a 17-yard pass, punted well and returned punts.
Fauquier (2-4) has one more game remaining this Friday at Millbrook. Liberty (2-4) was supposed to play James Wood this Friday, but the game was canceled due to James Wood's COVID issues and Liberty administrations chose not to pursue another opponent.