Liberty football coach Travis Buzzo is used to his team getting off to slow starts.
The Eagles trailed in the first half of each of their first three games this season, but rallied each time for wins over Brentsville, Courtland and King George.
Liberty never trailed in Thursday night’s Class 4 Northwestern District opener with visiting Culpeper County, but the Eagles had to shake off a pair of early turnovers to earn a 28-7 victory over the Blue Devils.
“I’ve got to find a way to get us to start fast and play fast the whole game,” Buzzo said. “We can’t keep waiting until the second, third and fourth quarters to start scoring some points.”
Liberty’s turnovers came on back-to-back plays in the first quarter, and both of them nullified good field position and an opportunity for the fast start Buzzo desires.
On the Eagles’ second play from scrimmage at their own 43-yard line, quarterback Dylan Bailey overthrew tight end Jordan Hicks down the middle of the field, and the pass was intercepted by the Blue Devils’ Austin Lentz.
On the first play of Liberty’s next possession, Mason Gay took a handoff and scampered for eight yards to the Culpeper 48 before fumbling the ball. It was scooped up by the Blue Devils’ Riley Harrison, who returned it to the Eagles’ 46.
“It’s just stuff like that that’s slowed us down tremendously early in games,” Buzzo said of the miscues.
Despite its opportunities, however, Culpeper (1-3 overall, 0-1 district) couldn’t seize control of the contest.
Following the Lentz interception, the Blue Devils drove from their own 30 to the Liberty 28 in just five plays. But the Eagles’ Keegan Shipe intercepted JoJo Crenshaw’s pass on second-and-9, abruptly ending the scoring threat.
After Harrison’s fumble recovery, Culpeper moved the ball as far as the Liberty 16. A false start penalty and an incomplete pass necessitated a 39-yard field goal attempt by Gabe Barros, which was nearly blocked and fell short of the goalpost.
The Blue Devils had another drive end in Eagles territory later in the first quarter, as Harrison was stacked up at the line for no gain on fourth-and-2 at the 33.
Acting Culpeper head coach Brandon Utz said his team’s failure to capitalize on its early chances was the difference in the game.
“I told the young men that you can play 90 percent of a football game extremely clean and extremely competitive, but that other 10 percent will translate poorly for you on the scoreboard,” Utz said. “Tonight, that 10 percent came back to haunt us.”
Liberty (4-0, 1-0) was finally able to sustain a drive—a nine-play, 67-yard march—to take a 6-0 lead with 11:54 remaining in the first half. The scoring play involved some trickery, as wide receiver Tre’Von White curled into the backfield and took a pitch on what initially resembled an end around, then pivoted and threw to a wide-open Hicks in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.
White played a big role in two other Eagles scores as well.
Midway through the second quarter, he returned a punt 44 yards to the Culpeper 39. Two plays later, Bailey connected with Justin Lawson for a 23-yard touchdown, extending Liberty’s advantage to 14-0 with 4:34 left to play in the half
White punctuated his big night by hauling in a 95-yard scoring pass from Bailey to cap the scoring with 3:26 remaining in the game.
Bailey completed 8 of 24 passes for 181 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Gay added 127 yards rushing and a score on 17 carries.
“We have a lot of guys who can put points on the board for us, but they’ve got to find a way to turn from a good team into a great team,” Buzzo remarked. “Great teams can just turn it on, and these guys can’t turn it on right now.”
Culpeper’s lone touchdown came on a 1-yard sneak by Crenshaw with 1:07 left in the first half, which cut Liberty’s advantage to 14-7 going into intermission.
The Blue Devils had a golden opportunity to tie the score on the opening possession of the second half, as a 41-yard strike from Crenshaw to Armani Hoffman helped them move the ball to the Eagles’ 39. However, Quentin Butler was unable to corral Crenshaw’s pass in the end zone on fourth-and-6, resulting in a turnover on downs.
Making his first career start at quarterback, the 6-foot-5 Crenshaw went 13-of-27 for 149 yards with a pair of interceptions.
“We’ve got a stud in JoJo at quarterback,” Utz said of the junior, who also stars for Culpeper’s basketball team. “He’s got a very high ceiling and can really play football. It’s just been a matter of getting him acclimated to the reads and the footwork of playing the position and building up his confidence. I think he showed [tonight] that he’s ready to step up and compete against the best.”
Ozzy Reindorf-Malm caught five of Crenshaw’s passes for 74 yards, while Harrison chipped in 20 carries for 127 yards on the ground.
Liberty visits Kettle Run next Friday, while Culpeper plays host to Handley.
Lib—Jordan Hicks 2-yard pass from Tre'Von White (kick blocked).
Lib—Justin Lawson 23-yard pass from Dylan Bailey (Tre'Von White pass from Bailey).
CC—JoJo Crenshaw 1-yard run (Gabe Barros kick).
Lib—Mason Gay 19-yard run (Noah Fox kick).
Lib—Tre'Von White 95-yard pass from Dylan Bailey (Noah Fox kick).
RUSHING: Culpeper County—Riley Harrison 20-127; Austin Lentz 9-40; JoJo Crenshaw 3-(-1), TD. Liberty—Mason Gay 17-127, TD; Markell Newman 7-36; Justin Lawson 2-14; Dylan Bailey 1-11; Samuel Marouse 3-(-2).
PASSING: Culpeper County—JoJo Crenshaw 13-27-2, 149 yards. Liberty—Dylan Bailey 8-24-2, 181 yards, 2 TDs; Tre'Von White 1-2-0, 2 yards, TD.
RECEIVING: Culpeper County—Ozzy Reindorf-Malm 5-76; Armani Hoffman 4-46; Quentin Butler 2-16; Joe Holland 1-8; Riley Harrison 1-3. Liberty—Tre'Von White 1-95, TD; Justin Lawson 4-57, TD; Jordan Hicks 2-23, TD; Fred Harris 1-8; Markell Newman 1-0.