By Doug Chapin
HUBBARD — Prolific is not a term one would use to describe the Hubbard High offense in the first half Friday night, even though the Eagles were averaging 36 points per game coming into their All-American Conference White Division contest against rival Liberty.
A sloppy field and a fired-up Liberty defensive unit resulted in four turnovers and two punts for Hubbard’s six possessions in the first half. The Leopards (4-4, 1-3) took advantage of one of the turnovers to score the only first-half touchdown for a 7-0 advantage at intermission.
In the second half, though, Hubbard (7-1, 3-0) finally got some big plays on offense and its defense dominated as the Eagles rallied for a 19-7 triumph, their seventh straight win.
“We knew it was going to be a battle and the field wasn’t helping either team tonight. It was hard to get anything established early, I think, for both teams. Patience was definitely a virtue in the first half,” Hubbard coach Brian Hoffman said.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the first half, we had three or four turnovers and one led to their score. So at halftime we talked about things we thought we could do as far as running the ball and controlling the clock a little bit. Then defensively, we really played well in the second half.”
Liberty went 30 yards in seven plays for its touchdown, a 1-yard run by Robert Smith-Harris (19 carries, 92 yards) with 5:34 remaining in the first quarter. It looked for quite a while that the Leopards would be able to make that score stand up.
“I thought we played good defense all the way around,” Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker said. “They have an explosive offensive football team. We gave them a short field twice for two of their scores, but defensively I thought we played pretty well, giving up just 13 points. To hold a team like Hubbard to 13 points, you’ve played a pretty good football game on that side of the ball.”
Senior linebacker Antonio Kinard had a fumble recovery and an interception for the Leopards.
Hubbard quarterback Matt Shelton (7-for-19, two interceptions, 155 yards) struggled with the conditions and the Leopard defense, but finally connected with Danny Duval for a 46-yard gain down to the Liberty 5 on a third-quarter possession. Andre Givens (16 carries, 68 yards) scored on the next play as the Eagles tied the game with 4:06 left in the quarter.
The Hubbard defense forced a three-and-out and the Eagles scored again, going 57 yards in five plays, the big gainer a 27-yard seam route from Shelton to Givens putting the ball on the 2. After a penalty, Givens ran in from 7 yards out.
The Eagles utilized several other formations in addition to their usual spread offense, trying to find something that would click.
“I think our offensive line did a nice job in the second half; they really started to move Liberty’s defensive line,” Hoffman said. “We are a spread team but we like to be a little bit diverse. We were under center for the majority of the second half and ran a little bit of a more traditional offense.”
Liberty wasn’t finished after Hubbard took the lead. Midway through the final quarter the Leopards advanced from their 20 to the Hubbard 43, their best offensive possession of the second half.
But disaster struck in the form of a fumble. Hubbard’s Cory Rushwin got a hand on the ball and it popped up to Duval who raced 53 yards for the game-clinching touchdown with 5:47 remaining in the game.
Senior defensive back Tommy Jackson contributed two interceptions for the Eagles and almost had a third.
For the Leopards, the close loss was familiar territory.
“It’s been a tough season. We’ve had other games like this, all of our losses have gone down to the wire,” Whittaker said. “Tonight we’re on a drive with six minutes to go and it’s 13-7. We have an opportunity to finish a drive and come up with a win and all of a sudden, in a matter of seconds, they have another touchdown on the scoreboard.”
Hubbard came into the game ranked seventh in Division III, Region 9. The victory should help the Eagles maintain their positioning in the playoff race, but also could provide additional benefits down the road.
“At halftime we told the kids they were playing a good football game even though we were down 7-0,” Hoffman said. “We haven’t been in that position for a while. Maybe we needed that adversity and maybe we can learn from it. We haven’t experienced it for a while. The kids responded in the second half and played very well.”