The Leopards had just too many big plays on offense and defense.
By CHUCK HOUSTEAU
LIBERTY -- Making big plays is what football is all about, according to Liberty High coach Jeff Whittaker.
The Leopards made plenty of those types of plays on offense, defense and special teams to cruise past Struthers 37-6 in their home opener.
"It's nice to be able to sustain drives, but you have to have those playmakers that are gonna turn games when things aren't going that well," said Whittaker
Liberty has a bevy of talented athletes all back from last year's regional finalist team and they wasted little time in jumping on the 'Cats.
Big plays lead way
On offense, the Leopards made plays over 10 yards 13 times in running up 311 total yards. Defensively, Liberty recorded three sacks, numerous pass breakups and returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown.
The Leopards also excelled on special teams as kicker John Humphrey booted a 45-yard field goal and Robert Hightower returned a kickoff 67 yards.
"They have so many weapons that they're tough to defense," said Struthers coach Pete Pirone Jr. whose team fell behind 21-0 in the first half.
"They're defensive line might be the best I've ever seen."
Liberty opened the game scoring on its first three possessions.
After forcing Struthers to punt, the Leopards scored quickly, marching 80 yards behind big runs of 26 yards by Chris Harden and 55 yards by Dania Gilliam.
Quarterback Donovan Fletcher then tallied on a 2-yard run.
Leading the offense
Gilliam led all rushers with 74 yards on 9 carries while Harden added 71 yards on 12 touches.
Robert Hightower scored the next two touchdowns for Liberty on runs of 20 and 4 yards as the Leopards opened up a 21-point halftime lead.
Hightower tacked on 53 rushing yards for Liberty.
Struthers, which deployed a spread offense and often going no huddle, tried to get back in the game in the second half as its young defense began to have success against the Leopard's challenging offense.
"We're a young team and one of the positives is that we didn't quit at halftime," Pirone said. "We made mistakes early but gave a good effort in the second half."
The Wildcats, who were held to 11 yards of offense in the first half, stopped Liberty on two consecutive drives and finally scored midway through the third quarter on a 15-yard pass from Mike Duponty to Justin Pensen.
Humphrey kicks field goal
However, Hightower returned the ensuing kickoff 67 yards to the Struthers 21 and four plays later Humphrey kicked a 45-yard field goal.
"That definitely changed the momentum of the game," Whittaker said. "We were starting to hang our heads, I'm not sure it was fatigue, but that was a momentum changer."
Liberty tacked on two late scores on a 56-yard scoring pass from back-up quarterback David Ferrell to Chevar Mitchell and on Harden's 78-yard interception return.
"We've still got a lot of worked to do," Whittaker said. "We don't want to be a polished football team in week one, we want to be there at week 10."