Call him Justin “Time” Lawson.
A senior with blazing speed, Lawson kept the Liberty Eagles’ football season alive Friday with a dazzling kickoff return for a 97-yard touchdown that tied the score early in the third quarter and began a run of 21 unanswered points. That gave the Eagles a 21-14 win over Loudoun County during the quarterfinals of the Class 4 Region B playoffs at home in Bealeton.
His score came in response to a Raiders touchdown that opened second half for a 7-0 County lead.
“I messed up on defense and allowed a big-time play,” Lawson said of that Raiders touchdown. “I told Tre’Von [White] that I was going to return” the kickoff.
“I had been saying all week that we were going to return one,” he said. “He kicked it to me, and that was a mistake.”
Lawson retrieved the ball kicked off by Jimmy Kibble before it reached the end zone. Then he burst up the middle of the field, splitting Loudoun County defenders all the way to pay dirt, so Liberty trailed in the game for only 14 seconds.
“The offense hadn’t been doing anything and Justin not letting the kick get to the end zone is huge,” Liberty head coach Travis Buzzo said. “With it being a line drive he caught it when their coverage wasn’t down the field yet.
“He had a lot of space and he made some guys miss,” Buzzo said. “He’s a terrific football player.”
So 11-0 Liberty, effectively the region’s No. 2 seed, will host 10-1 Tuscarora, effectively No. 3, next week after ending the season for Loudoun County, effectively No. 8. Tuscarora advanced to the semifinals with a 47-17 win over Sherando, effectively No. 5.
Less than two minutes after Lawson’s tying touchdown, White scored the winning points as a defensive back by returning an interception 60 yards for a touchdown. With the Raiders driving on their second possession of the half, White jumped underneath a Loudoun County receiver for his second interception of the game. White, who owns Liberty’s single-season record for interceptions, had nothing but green grass in front of him and used a key downfield block to cruise into the end zone for a 13-7 lead.
He identified a comeback and double-move route combination as the play developed and he stepped in front of the former.
“I told A.J. [Adrian Johnson] that I was going to be jumping the flats early,” White said. “I guessed it right and I took it back to the house.”
So the Eagles had 13 points quickly in the third quarter without their struggling offense taking the field. After gaining the lead, Liberty again flashed the stout defense it showed in the first half and harassed Loudoun County’s passers and rushers.
Then, with just seconds left in the third quarter, the Eagles’ offense muscled its way inside the 10-yard line and quarterback Samuel Marouse threw a perfect pass into the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to Lawson. Marouse plowed his way to a two-point conversion run and gave Liberty a 21-7 lead.
“The defense played really well and the special teams played really well,” Buzzo said. “Luckily the offense was able to get in the end zone once.”
In fact, the Eagles scored touchdowns in all three phases of the game (offense, defense and special teams) for the second consecutive week.
So everything appeared to be going smoothly for the Eagles until midway through the fourth quarter. Joseph Groves stepped in front of a Dylan Bailey pass with 6 minutes, 55 seconds remaining and returned the interception 24 yards to cut the Raiders’ deficit to 21-14.
The Eagles then ran the clock under two minutes before a failed fourth-down play gave Loudoun County the ball on its own 32-yard line. But the Raiders’ bid for a game-tying drive was short lived.
Defensive lineman Jordan Woodson burst through the Raiders’ offensive line for his fifth and most important sack of the game. His hit jarred the ball loose from Jacob Wilson and Liberty’s Austin Jacobs immediately recovered it to ice the game.
“Big time players make big time plays, and that is what I did,” Woodson said.
The Liberty defense got stellar performances from players on every level. In addition to White’s two interceptions, junior cornerback Adrian Johnson played a key role in checking Groves, the Raiders’ star receiver.
Senior linebacker Saud Ismael was seemingly everywhere throughout the game, including a series in the first quarter where he pushed the Raiders’ offense back with a sack and another tackle-for-loss. Perhaps most impressive, though, was Woodson and the Liberty pass rush. The Eagles notched eight sacks and countless quarterback pressures while occupying the Raiders’ backfield on nearly every play.
“I felt like I let my team down last week because I did something childish at the end of the game,” said Woodson, who sat out during the first drive Friday as a result. “That gave me the mindset that I had to lift my team up.”
He helped hold Loudoun County scoreless in the first half with the Raiders claiming only one first down.
Liberty’s offense also failed to score, though. The Eagles had scoring opportunities with several chunk-yardage plays but Loudoun County punter Jimmy Kibble continually made them begin drives from deep in their own territory. The Eagles’ failure to convert any of their fourth down attempts (0-for-4) also kept them reeling for points in the first half.
Despite a nearly perfect first half from the Liberty defense, Loudoun County’s offense came out in the second half with answers. Raiders’ quarterback Jacob Wilson found Groves for several key first downs before junior running back Tariq Sims broke the scoreless tie with a 14-yard touchdown run.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, they sent the ensuing kickoff to Lawson.
“I knew it was time,” he said.