By Brandon Judeh
On paper, the Liberty Leopards should have easily defeated winless Girard, but that is why games are played on the field.
The Leopards shook off a horrendous first half to come from behind and defeat rival Girard, 35-21, in an All-American Conference National Division game Friday night.
It was a tale of two halves for the Leopards (6-1) as they had a hard time getting anything going on offense, largely because the Indians controlled the ball for 17 minutes compared to just 7 for Liberty.
“We wanted to come out and execute and we controlled the ball early, which was big, but we made too many mistakes down the stretch,” said Girard coach Nick Cochran.
Things looked dim for the Leopards at the end of the second quarter, when Girard quarterback Nick Cardiero heaved a prayer into the end zone. Jordan Graziano caught it, giving the Indians (0-7) an unlikely 13-7 halftime lead.
“We talked about some things at halftime and made a few adjustments on defense and a couple on offense,” said first-year Liberty coach Brian Jones. “We came out flat, but our seniors spoke up and we picked up our intensity in the second half.”
Jones’ strategy worked as the Leopards came out of the locker room with something to prove.
Sherron Walls, who rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns, ran it in from 4 yards out to give Liberty a 14-13 lead.
Late in the third quarter it appeared that the Leopards were going to run away with the game after a 35-yard reverse run by John Helms put Liberty up by eight.
But Girard answered with perhaps the most exciting play of the night.
With the game on the line and little more than nine minutes left in the game, Girard was facing a fourth-and-6 situation.
Cardiero avoided a sack, broke out of two tackles and — as he was being brought down — passed the ball to Evan DelBene, who did the rest.
DelBene raced for a 32-yard touchdown and the Indians tied the game at 21 with a two-point conversion.
Liberty took the lead for good moments later when quarterback Asim Pleas punched it in from the 1,
“We haven’t beat Girard since 2006 and we put it in our hearts and souls to come out and beat them,” Walls said.
Despite going 1-19 over the previous two seasons, the Leopards are out to a 6-1 start. Walls credits this to hard work in the offseason and buying in to his coach’s approach.
“All of our success translates from the offseason,” he said. “Nobody took days off, we worked out and worked hard and it’s starting to show.”