BEALETON—The Liberty football team wasn’t happy with its up-and-down campaign a season ago.
The Eagles lost two of their first three games, were never able to put together more than two wins in a row, and finished with a 5-5 mark as a result.
For a program that’s made the playoffs 14 times since its inception in 1994, it was an uncharacteristic study in mediocrity.
However, if Friday’s season opener against visiting Brentsville is any indication, the Eagles aren’t in for a repeat performance this fall.
Quarterback Dylan Bailey accounted for five touchdowns in his first career start, and Liberty’s defense held Brentsville to 150 yards of total offense and forced six turnovers in a 55-15 rout.
“Dylan overcame some early jitters tonight, which isn’t uncommon for a kid making his first start,” first-year Liberty head coach Travis Buzzo said. “I thought our offense really started humming once he settled in.”
Humming is an understatement.
Bailey, a 6-foot-3, 177-pound junior, completed 10 of 18 passes for 211 yards and four touchdowns. He added a 3-yard run for a score as well.
All of this came after Bailey fumbled the ball on the Eagles’ first offensive play of the night. Tigers linebacker Yuri Smaltz strip-sacked him and scampered 12 yards for a touchdown to give the visitors a quick 7-0 lead.
Each of Liberty’s next two possessions ended with fumbles as well.
“It wasn’t just Dylan,” Buzzo said. “We all came out a little uptight.”
Bailey’s 24-yard scoring pass to junior tight end Jordan Hicks pulled Liberty within a point of Brentsville, 7-6, with 3:26 remaining in the first quarter. He followed that up with a 31-yarder to senior wide receiver Tre’Von White on the next drive, giving the Eagles a 14-7 advantage.
Bailey hooked up with White again for a 47-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, then added an 18-yard strike to senior Justin Lawson that handed Liberty a 34-7 lead with 1:28 left in the first half.
White finished with 92 yards on three receptions, while Hicks added 84 on three catches of his own.
Junior running back A.J. Johnson scored Liberty’s other first-half touchdown on a 29-yard run.
“With all the experience we have, we expect to be explosive,” Buzzo said of his offense, which returns eight starters this season.
The Eagles’ defense got into the scoring act in the second half, as junior defensive back Wyatt Hicks returned a fumble 45 yards for a touchdown and junior safety Keegan Shipe added a 31-yard interception return.
Liberty picked off four Brentsville passes on the night, senior linebacker Saud Ismael and defensive backs White and Lawson collecting one apiece.
“We like to play fast [on defense],” Buzzo said. “We have a lot of team speed, and that forces opposing offenses to make quick decisions, which leads to them making mistakes and turning the ball over.”
Alexander Tate scored the Tigers’ only offensive touchdown of the game on a 1-yard plunge with 3:51 remaining in the game.
“We had [Liberty] on the ropes early with the three straight fumbles,” Brentsville head coach Joe Mullinax said. “They were stunned, and we couldn’t capitalize.”
Buzzo, a 2012 Liberty graduate who spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach, said Friday’s result was a good start to getting the Eagles back to their winning ways.
“It was a slow start, but I can’t be any happier with winning the first game,” he said. “As long as these kids keep working hard and doing things the Liberty way, we’ll be fine.”