Harmony survives gritty Liberty, 32-17
By J. Daniel Pearson
For the News-Gazette
The scoreboard will show a comfortable, 15-point margin as Harmony (5-3, 4-1) kept its playoff hopes alive with a 32-17 win over Liberty (2-6, 1-4) Thursday.
But, it was anything but comfortable for the Longhorns, as the game really came down to two key fourth-down plays that decided the outcome. Holding on to a narrow 19-17 lead in the fourth quarter, the Longhorns faced a 4th-and-9 at the Liberty 37. Lining up in punt formation, up back Alex Britton took a direct snap from center, broke two tackles at the line and gained 12 yards and a first down.
Five plays later, quarterback Jeremiah Murray scored on a 3-yard run to give the Horns a 25-17 lead. The play capped a mammoth 15-play, 64-yard drive where the Longhorns converted three third-down plays and the fourth-down fake punt, holding the ball for over 11:30.
“Obviously it was a huge play for us,” Harmony Coach Jerrad Butler said. “Liberty has a bunch of skill players and did a great job of hanging in the game. They had some momentum when they scored a touchdown on their previous possession and I just felt that we had to keep the ball out of their hands. We practice the fake punt all the time, but it’s always a gamble.”
Still, the Longhorns missed the extra point and led by only eight with 7:53 remaining. In addition, a short kickoff gave the Chargers possession at midfield. After a pass interference penalty set Liberty up on the Horns 37, a Patrick Knight completion to Justin Winkler and two short runs gave Liberty a fourth-and-1 on the Longhorn 28.
But the Harmony defense stuffed Kyle Sharman just inches from a first down.
“That was our opportunity to potentially tie the game,” Chargers Coach Cory Johns said. “Give Harmony’s defense credit, they stuffed the play. I told our guys those are plays that make a difference between victory and defeat. We need to convert plays like that.”
The Longhorns failed to move the ball after taking possession, but punter Jason Hundley’s booming 52-yard kick pinned Liberty at its own 20 with just 2:49 remaining. Seven plays later and faced with a 4th and 15, Murray’s desperation heave was intercepted by Daishaun Grimes, who returned it 35-yards down the left sideline for a game-clinching touchdown.
“Our defense has been the key to our success all season and they stepped it up in the second half,” Butler said. “What was really encouraging tonight was the fact that our offense continued to show improvement.”
Still, Harmony needed a little luck to take a 19-10 lead into the half. Opening the game with an impressive seven-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 1-yard touchdown run by Artelle Blackwell, Harmony’s 7-0 lead was short-lived when Winkler broke loose for a 67-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage for the Chargers.
The luck factor came into play two possessions later for the Longhorns. Faced with a fourth-and-1 from the Liberty 28, Murray fired a pass down the right sideline that Chargers defensive back Anthony Williams had a beat on, but the pass went through his hands, bounced off his shoulder pads and into the hands of receiver Tristan Reaves for a touchdown and a 13-7 Horns lead.
A Liberty fumble on the next possession would then give the Horns a short field and Britton capped a five-play, 50-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run to up the lead to 19-7 at the 7:03 mark of the second quarter. A 37-yard field goal by Liberty’s Charles VanStralendorff cut the lead to 19-10 at the half.
Liberty, which gained 182 yards of total offense and had seven first downs in the first half, had just 80 yards on 23 plays in the second half. The difference in the offensive output was due to several factors according to Johns.
“We lost out center early in the third quarter with a probable concussion and our backup just struggled a little with his assignments,” Johns said. “But I also think fatigue had a lot to do with it. We don’t have the depth that I would like and we have eight guys playing both offense and defense. I think that was a huge factor, especially on that long drive Harmony had. Basically they just wore us down. Still our guys gave maximum effort and I could not be prouder of how they played.”
For the contest, Harmony edged the Chargers in both total offense (291-262) and first downs (18-11). Individually, several backs had solid rushing games. For Harmony, Blackwell led all players with 88 yards on 19 carries, Britton had 72 yards on 10 totes and Murray had 34 yards on eight carries. For the Chargers, Winkler had 73 yards on four carries and Steven Phillips also had 73 yards on just five carries. Knight completed 10 of 24 passes for 104 yards with one TD and an interception; while Murray was 3 of 8 for 63 yards, a TD and one pick.
In other football action Thursday, Osceola, 6-2 and 4-0, coasted past Celebration, 55-0, in a 7A-6 district game at Kowboys field, and Poinciana, 3-4, boosted its 5A-10 district record to 1-1 with a 47-9 win at Tenoroc.