After starting the season 0-3, it looked as if Liberty’s luck was going to change for the better, especially with an 11-point lead with 8:40 left against Struthers.
A homecoming victory seemed within reach, even after Vince Fandozzi’s touchdown for the Wildcats with 4:53 remaining.
Then David Stewart, who is a workhorse on offense yet doesn’t play much defense, recovered a fumble at Liberty’s 25-yard line.
Five plays later, Stewart scored his second TD and he kicked the extra point.
But Struthers didn’t seal it until Braxton Koup and Tyler Stocker put the finishing touches on Liberty as the Leopards tried last-minute maneuvers before losing, 20-18.
“It’s tough to recover from that, especially with a group of guys who haven’t won in the past,” Struthers coach Mark Asher said of his team that fell behind 18-7.
“We have T-shirts about believing and they hung in and believed.”
Stewart ran 34 times for 179 yards and the 6-foot, 217-pound junior kicked two PATs.
Tommy Kimbrough’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Vince Fandozzi accounted for the other score for the Wildcats (3-1) in the AAC White battle.
“Our kids played a heck of a game, but three fumbles in the second half enabled Struthers to get back in the game,” said Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker. “They took advantage of our mistakes and that was the difference in game.”
Liberty’s 18 points came on Michael Moamis’ 58-yard touchdown pass to Doan McKinney and a pair of TD runs by Sharron Walls, who was the game’s other workhorse with 163 yards on 27 carries.
Christian Walker, Mike Kunzer and Stewart had the three recoveries and Bobby Milone intercepted one of Moamis’ passes before halftime.
Struthers’ Dylan Duchek had five catches for 85 yards and Kimbrough was 14 of 25 for 161 yards, while starter Gary Muntean completed one pass of 17 yards to Duchek.
The Wildcats shot themselves in the foot the first half and finished with seven penalties for 39 yards.
Struthers got to Liberty’s 10 then fumbled and lost possession at the 5. Early in the fourth, the Wildcats, after a delay penalty, started at its own 7, then a short punt by Struthers and a good return by Frank Bond put the Leopards 12 yards from the end zone. Three plays later, Liberty extended its lead to 18-7.
Stewart didn’t play any defense until last few series.
“We keep him on offense, but one of the defensive players went down,” Asher said of putting Stewart at outside linebacker/stand-up end.
“He’s a playmaker,” Asher said of Stewart’s recovery that led to Wildcats’ winning TD at 1:44.
Koup, a sophomore, fumbled on his first varsity carry when Struthers could least afford it — on Liberty’s 5 at 5:58 of the third quarter.
However, the middle linebacker redeemed himself on the game’s last series when he made a key open-field tackle to stop Liberty’s Bond.
A few minutes earlier, Stewart was trying to strip the ball.
“We knew we needed that ball, so we had to get it,” Stewart said. “There’s no quit this team at all. When we believe, we perform and no one can stop us.”
Struthers’ only loss was Girard.
“These are the games you’ve got to win if you want your record to mean something,” Asher said.