With a 40-27 win over the Handley Judges, Travis Buzzo completed a lot on his checklist Friday as Liberty’s first year head coach.
Score in all three phases. Check.
Contain Handley's Malachi Imoh, the district’s most dangerous player. Check.
Claim a Class 4 Northwestern District Title. Check.
So as the final whistle blew, Liberty players tracked down Buzzo with the same gusto they used to contain Imoh and showered their coach using the Gatorade jug at home in Bealeton with the first real frosty temperatures of the football season.
“It’s not about me. It is about these boys right here,” said Buzzo, whose team remained undefeated at 9-0. “They have really bought into the system and they are rolling with it right now.”
The Eagles scored with a 44-yard interception return by Tre’Von White and a 90-yard kickoff return by Justin Lawson to go with their usual efficient offense, which racked up points through the air and on the ground.
“The defense played fast and got us some points. The special teams played phenomenal and got us some points, and the offense was really clicking,” Buzzo said after beating the 7-2 Judges. “We told them all week that this was a really good defense we were going against. We were going to have to play our best up front to handle them.”
Imoh had been putting up video-game-type numbers in 2019, but through the first half against undefeated Liberty the senior’s only big contribution was a 26-yard completion on their opening offensive play.
“We were going to do everything in our power to try and keep him contained,” Buzzo said, “and I thought we did a really good job of doing that for three quarters.”
The Eagles’ Freddie Harris, Jordan Woodson and Michael Baldwin each finished with a sack, adding to a fumble recovery from Matthew Sloan and interceptions from White (two) and Bryan Barnes.
Liberty and Handley battled fiercely throughout the first quarter to remain scoreless until the final minute when Eagles quarterback Dylan Bailey completed a short shovel pass to Justin Lawson, a speedy wide receiver. Lawson followed his blocking to the outside as the play was designed before reversing direction to bend around the corner of the Judges’ defense.
Even a Handley squad that includes all four members of the 2018 state runner-up 400-meter track team couldn’t catch him while he cruised to a 30-yard touchdown.
“I saw the defense collapsing down on the jet-action so I decided to see what I could do with the ball,” Lawson said.
Bailey then hit Wyatt Hicks in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion and an 8-0 lead.
The second quarter played out identically. The defensive stalemate went on until the final minute of the half when Mason Gay burst up the middle through an intimidating effort to score a 2-yard touchdown with 40.6 seconds remaining for a 14-0 lead.
Gay was a workhorse for the Eagles, who are finding their running game late in the season as the weather changes. The junior running back carried the ball 24 times for 129 yards.
“The line came out in the second and they were firing through,” Gay said. “They helped me out a lot. … After a lot of hard practice, we are running more and doing our thing.”
Handley had a chance to climb back into the game by receiving the second half kickoff, but White (who had a punt-return touchdown called back in the first half) grabbed a pass off the fingertips of a Judges receiver to snag his second interception of the game. He returned the errant pass 44 yards for a touchdown.
“I saw that they kept running the same passing route so I just cheated to one side and hoped that I was correct,” White said. “The ball sailed high and he tipped it. I got a great block from, I think, Jordan Woodson.”
So Liberty led 22-0 before Imoh got on track. After a handful of positive runs, the Judges were able to use Imoh as a decoy and get Dayvon Newman free on a counter play for a 32-yard touchdown run. Imoh punched in the two-point conversion to make the score 22-8.
Just seconds later the Eagles showed why they are unbeaten. Like they have so many times this season, they refused to surrender any sustained momentum.
Handley’s kickoff bounced deep inside Liberty territory where Lawson planted his foot and confidently scooped up the ball. He found several narrow creases for a 90-yard kickoff return touchdown that reignited the home crowd.
Imoh then hit Jayden Vardaro on a 51-yard touchdown pass, but the Eagles responded when Bailey hit Jordan Hicks for an 8-yard score before Imoh busted loose for a 66-yard touchdown run with under five minutes remaining in the fourth period.
Then Liberty backup quarterback Samuel Marouse led the Eagles down the field and scored on a 1-yard run to put the game away even though Imoh scored once more on a 16-yard touchdown run.
Imoh rebounded from a pedestrian first half to finish with 292 total yards (160 rush, 132 pass) and three touchdowns (two rush, one pass), but most of his damage was done after Liberty established a comfortable lead.
The Eagles also had three touchdowns called back, two on long passes to Lawson and Wyatt Hicks and one on the White punt return. The Eagles have had an astonishingly high number of touchdowns called back this season, making their undefeated run even more impressive.
Liberty’s can finished the regular season 10-0 next week with a win on the road over rival Fauquier Falcons (4-5) during the Bird Bowl, which the Falcons have lost 16 consecutive times.
“The rivalry with Fauquier is huge,” Buzzo said. “Nobody ever wants a streak to end. We want to stay perfect and it is a cross-county rival. It can’t get much better than that.”