A 49-yard reverse and a 71-yard punt return were the electrifying runs.
VINDICATOR STAFF REPORT
LIBERTY — Season openers are built-in equalizers because both teams enter 0-0 and neither has the advantage over the other.
Despite Kevin Smith’s interception of a Shawn Haywood pass less than two minutes into the game, East High showed Liberty that it wasn’t a pushover.
The Panthers made Liberty work for its first three points: a Chad Nasci field goal, but DeAndrey Abron made East pay the rest of the game.
Abron ran 49 yards for Liberty’s first touchdown and returned a punt 71 yards for the Leopards’ final score in a 17-6 victory.
“That punt return was a back-breaker,” Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker said. “He’s explosive, but we’ve got to get some of our other weapons going as well.”
In addition to this punt return, the 6-foot, 168-pound senior gained 70 yards on five carries and caught three passes for 77 yards.
Nick Mattocks was on the throwing end of those passes and the 6-2, 181-pound senior quarterback was the catalyst in Abron’s first TD: a reverse.
Ahead 3-0, Liberty faced a second-and-16 near the 50-yard line. That’s when Mattocks ran to his left and handed off to Abron, who sprinted in the other direction before heading downfield. Nasci’s extra-point put Liberty up, 10-0 at the half.
Although Abron was the most obvious weapon, Nico Minniti excelled. The 5-7, 151-pound senior had an interception early in the third quarter and threw a solid block that opened Abron’s midfield path during his punt return.
“It was a nice, clean block and a heck of a hit,” Whittaker said of the play that paved the way for Abron’s TD with 0:43 remaining in the third quarter.
In the backfield, Brandon Martin was the recipient of an unusual handoff from Mattocks during Liberty’s field goal drive.
“That’s a wrap-around draw,” Whittaker said of the exchange that Mattocks stuffed into Martin’s gut from behind. “It’s the old Cleveland Browns wrap-around draw. It’s been good to us, so we run it.”
It netted Martin six yards.
Whittaker, whose team was on offense more than 30 minutes, said that East’s defense was tricky.
“They give you all that upfield gap-A pressure and it’s hard,” the coach said of blitzing by the Panthers from linebackers and the corners in a 3-5 scheme.
“They try to get upfield in a hurry and create havoc in your backfield. Sometimes, you’re going to make great plays when you get that and, sometimes, you’re going to get stuffed. I thought we put some nice drives together, now we have to get some consistency.”
Whittaker can only recall playing East one other time — about 13 years ago.
East coach Brian Shaner’s team was still in good shape when trailing 3-0.
“It was that kind of game — a defensive battle,” Shaner said. “But giving up that long reverse for a touchdown and the punt return broke our back. What a phenomenal game he [Abron] had. He almost looked unaccounted for out there.”
Before Michael Thomas’ 44 touchdown reception of Haywood’s pass to give East its only points, the Panthers had several other opportunities.
“If we would have hit those plays it would have been a different outcome,” Shaner said. “It’s like our MO through the preseason. We’re just not making the plays.”
Shaner was asked about East’s tackling.
“It didn’t look like one of our East defenses. Usually, there’s a lot of popping going on. That’s something we pride ourselves on. But there were missed tackles. I don’t know if it was our defense or their backs were just that good, but we had a lot of missed tackles.”
I’m going to give Liberty credit for it. Maybe their backs are that good and we didn’t step up.”