Olentangy Liberty senior quarterback A.J. Smith came off the bench and fired two touchdown passes to help his team lock up at least a share of the OCC-Buckeye title and hold onto an undefeated season.
The Patriots defense kept rival Olentangy Orange at bay for much of the night in a 20-13 victory Friday night in Powell.
Ben Rinsma on a slant took Smith’s pass and turned it into an 89-yard touchdown with 3:37 left in regulation to tie things up 10-10.
“Coach called a slant backside and A.J. came in with a great ball,” Rinsma said. “I just tried to make a play for the team. A.J. was so great – the way he stepped in this week. He did everything we asked.”
Smith found Johnny Wiseman over the middle for a 17-yard touchdown that turned out to be the winner in the second OT.
“That was awesome – there’s no other way I could have pictured senior night going out,” Smith said. “I trusted my teammates and my teammates trusted me.”
Smith finished 16-for-27 for 196 yards and an interception.
Smith was forced into action on Liberty’s second possession when Brendon White came up limping and was forced out of the game.
White returned and missed on his first four pass attempts, two of which went for interceptions, including a 32-yard pick-six by J.D. Dayhuff to put the Pioneers up 7-0 with 3:16 left in the opening frame.
“(Dayhuff) is a good corner,” Pioneers coach Zebb Schroeder said. “He’s long, he’s athletic and he’s tough.”
White left for good midway through the second quarter and finished 2-for-6 for 10 yards and rushed for 23 yards on nine carries.
Liberty’s defense was stout all night, just as it has been all season. The Patriots (9-0, 4-0) have not allowed the opponent’s offense a touchdown in three games and held Orange to just 190 yards of total offense and 57 yards rushing.
“They’re defense is tremendous,” Schroeder said. “The way they play and the way they’re coached, they just have no weaknesses.”
Skylar Wahland and Drew Rosi each had five tackles and Kyle Akerman had a sack to lead the Liberty defense.
“I think it’s just (the way) our defense is set up,” Rosi said. “Our defense has played well all year. We’ve all worked together well – we all do our jobs.”
Smith, who is mainly the team’s kicker, saw it all – the highs and the lows. The low was a missed 27-yard field goal with 3 seconds left in regulation that would have won the game and then some redemption when he nailed a 31-yard attempt to send the game to a second overtime.
“Every kid should get to experience what he just experienced,” Patriots coach Steve Hale said. “He’ll take that with him the rest of his life.”
The Pioneers have stalled some of the area’s top offenses this season, holding a normally high-octane Liberty offense to just three points until late in the fourth quarter.
Orange forced three Liberty interceptions, one by Jimmy Sensibaugh and another by Steven Collins, which seemingly put the game away late in the fourth quarter.
Bryce Houston had 12 tackles, including one for a loss, and T.J. Coates had a pair of sacks to lead the Orange defense.
“The strength of our team is defense,” Schroeder said. “I really love how we’re playing. We have no problem putting the game in our defense’s hands in the second half.”
Joe Metcalf made field goal attempts of 31 and 33 yards and averaged 34.1 yards per punt in 12 attempts.
Matt Webb led the Patriots with 78 yards rushing on 17 carries. He gained 38 yards on four carries, topped by a 25-yard run to set up Smith’s 21-yard field goal with 1:42 left in the first half.
Rinsma finished with 106 yards receiving on three catches, Will Fowler had five catches for 28 yards and Wiseman finished with 27 yards on four catches, including the game-winner.
Dayhuff went 13-for-23 for 133 yards through the air and led the Pioneers with 30 yards on 21 attempts on the ground.
Sam Almond led with 53 yards on four catches and Zach Pfeiffer had 42 yards on a team-high four catches for the Pioneers (5-4, 2-2), who have dropped their second straight game.
“We prepared like champions all week,” Schroeder said. “We had a couple of chances there offensively … if we could have slammed the door and put this game away.”
The win is the Patriots’ fifth straight over Orange and sixth in seven tries overall.
Liberty has had some close calls throughout the year. The Patriots won at North Allegheny (PA) on a two-point conversion late in the season opener, came back to beat Cleveland Glenville the next week and beat Pickerington North on a hook-and-ladder in the fourth quarter in the fifth game.
“We’ve been fighting and staying alive all year long,” Hale said. “When you’re riding something special – you just ride it. I’m really proud of these kids.”
Next up, Liberty can clinch the league title outright with a win at Westerville North and Orange finishes up at home with Westerville South. Both are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday night.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.