Over the final three quarters Friday, the Liberty Eagles shut out a typically prolific Sherando offense.
That defensive effort kept them undefeated with a rare 20-13 victory over the Warriors on the road in Stephens City.
The Warriors took a 13-6 lead in the first period, but they still failed to score 14 points in the rivalry game for the first time since 2011. So their 2019 record fell to 3-3 while Liberty improved to 6-0 with only its fifth victory over Sherando in 15 meetings since in 2004.
With the win, the Eagles also spoiled Sherando’s homecoming celebration. It was a packed crowd for the Warriors, looping around the field's exterior fence lining and loaded with their traditional Tomahawk chops.
“They are a great football team and this is a great environment,” Liberty coach Travis Buzzo said of Sherando, which has lost more than four games in a season only once since in 2003. “We tried all week to prepare for this moment.
“There is nothing like playing at Sherando,” he said. "There aren’t really moments that could mimic it, but we were mentally prepared for this environment.”
So Liberty used superior team speed, Dylan Bailey’s throwing accuracy and timely play calling from Buzzo to score on its first two possessions of the second half.
Justin Lawson led the Eagles with 97 yards from scrimmage in part thanks to success running a jet sweep in the first half, but he was far more valuable than just those statistics.
With Sherando leading 13-12 midway through the third quarter, the Eagles’ coaches took advantage of their weapon, Lawson, in a different way after they noticed the Warriors keying in on him.
In a play that resembled the jet sweep, a sprinting Lawson motioned in from his wide receiver position and took a handoff. Then, with the bulk of the Warriors’ defense in pursuit, Lawson flipped the ball to Tre’Von White, who had a full head of steam in the opposite direction.
White pick up a block from Bailey before gliding for an easy 27-yard touchdown on the end around, which gave Liberty its only lead of the game, 19-13, with 6:52 left in the third quarter.
“As soon as I saw their whole defensive line come after me I gave Tre the pitch and I saw it wide open,” Lawson said. “I knew it was a touchdown.”
Mason Gay rushed in the two-point conversion to complete the scoring. From that point on, Liberty’s defense protected the one-score lead.
After finding a way to slow down Sherando’s running game, the Eagles turned up the heat on Warriors sophomore quarterback Dylan Rodeffer. That pressure helped snuff out several Sherando drives.
Nonetheless, to start the fourth quarter, a Sherando punt pinned Liberty inside its own 2-yard line. Pressure then forced an errant throw by Bailey and the Warriors’ Jabril Hayes made his second interception of the game.
Hayes had a convoy up the sideline that led him into the end zone, which appeared to give Sherando a chance to tie the score with an extra point. But a block in the back penalty negated the touchdown.
The Warriors still pushed the ball inside of Liberty’s 10-yard line, but several failed runs left them with a fourth-and-3 down from the 4-yard.
On a brilliantly dissected play, Liberty senior linebacker Saud Ismael blanketed Rodeffer’s primary passing option before leaping to bat a pass out of harm’s way.
Bailey, Jordan Hicks and Markkel Newman then created some space with Liberty’s offense. The Eagles punted, but they left the Warriors with the ball on Sherando’s 27-yard line with 4:36 remaining in the game.
Sherando converted on a fourth-and-long situation after Jordan Woodson and Wyheem Vessels combined for a sack. But they soon faced fourth down again in Liberty territory after Vessels came free on a blitz for another third-down sack.
“We are going to stay aggressive no matter what,” Buzzo said. “Especially against a sophomore quarterback.”
Rodeffer completed a short fourth-down pass over the middle, but the Eagles quickly swarmed Hayes and flipped him to the ground short of the first-down marker, igniting the Liberty fans who made the hour-long journey.
Earlier, in the first quarter, Sherando took a 6-0 lead after Hayes intercepted a Bailey pass. Several plays later, senior running back Darius Lane (31 carries, 138 yards) broke free for an 18-yard touchdown run.
Lawson responded with a 24-yard run on a jet sweep that triggered a seven play, 74-yard drive capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass from Bailey to Wyatt Hicks on fourth down.
Sherando then took its 13-6 lead when Lane scampered for a 9-yard touchdown to complete a methodical drive.
The Warriors later took the second half kickoff, but Liberty’s defense recovered a fumble on third-and-long. Moments later, Bailey hit Lawson on a quick route. Lawson stopped on a dime after the catch, spun to the outside and used his speed to outrun the Sherando defense for a 28-yard touchdown.
“Going back to film, we watched how their linebackers play, and they stack the box,” Lawson said. “We went over slants and dump routes all week. That is what we had to do to make big plays.”
So Bailey finished with 196 yards on 14-for-29 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We played a good game,” he said, “but that is nowhere near our highest level. We can do so much more.”