By Ryan Jones
LIBERTY — Even though Liberty outgained Niles 163-39 in the first half, the Leopards managed only a 3-0 lead at the intermission.
Liberty’s productive offense and a stout defense were over shadowed by penalties and undisciplined play, however; the Leopards tightened their decision making and scored 26 second-half points en route to a 29-12 victory on Friday.
Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker said he was to blame for his team’s lack of discipline.
“We have to do a better job of being disciplined in every phase of the game,” he said. “We made too many mental mistakes in the first half. We have some ability, but we hurt ourselves with our lack of discipline in the first half.”
Tailback Charles Perdue, who led all rushers with 11 carries for 132 yards, gave Liberty (2-0) a 10-0 lead when he scored on a 48-yard touchdown jaunt with 10:48 left in the third quarter.
Niles responded with a six-play, 56-yard drive that ended with quarterback Zack Bailey’s two-yard touchdown plunge to cut the score to 10-6.
With the momentum swinging the Red Dragons’ way, Liberty’s defense rose to the challenge. On Niles’ next possession, Bryceton Baker was intercepted by DeAndrey Abron and later in the third quarter linebacker Anthony Gutierrez came up with two tackles for a loss and a pick that set up Liberty’s next score.
Gutierrez said it was the play of his defensive linemen that allowed Liberty’s linebackers to roam free.
“It’s all about our big tackles inside; they keep the center and guards off of us and keep us fresh all game,” he said. “When their quarterback rolled out to my side I knew he was going to throw it to that receiver. I just waited — he stared at his receiver the whole time — and made the play.”
Gutierrez’s interception put the Liberty offense in good field position at the Niles 26-yard line and on fourth-and-8 Nick Mattocks lofted a 24-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Kinard to give the Leopards a 16-6 lead.
“Niles got in our in our heads early in the game,” Gutierrez said. “You’ve got to give them credit for doing that, but at halftime we got our heads right and came out strong in the second half.”
Niles coach Brad Yeager said turning the ball over played a large part in the outcome.
“The turnovers Liberty came up with were gutsy plays,” he said. “Our defense played a good bend but don’t break style for three quarters, but we couldn’t make a comeback. We threw two picks and fumbled one away, but what we need to take out of this is how to battle through adversity when we turn the ball over. We need to learn to hang around in these close games a little longer.”
Gutierrez recovered a fumble on Niles’ first possession of the fourth quarter and tailback Robert Smith-Harris scored from a yard out to make the score 23-6.
Whittaker said Gutierrez and Michigan recruit Antonio Kinard are the heart of his defense.
“They were all-conference linebackers last year,” he said. “We’ve come to kind of expect them to make those types of impact plays and they have made many.”
Bailey went 8-of-17 for 115 yards and a touchdown pass to lead Niles, while Baker completed 6-of-10 passes for 68 yards. Nick Lucariello led all receivers with six receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown.
For Liberty, Smith-Harris totaled 107 yards on 19 carries and Brandon Martin rushed nine times for 63 yards and a score.