Liberty started fast on offense and finished strong on defense on its way to a 24-17 victory over rival Olentangy Orange in the regional quarterfinals of the Division I playoffs Friday night in Powell.
Drew Rosi caught seven passes for 75 yards and a touchdown on offense and had six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble on defense.
“It means a lot to all of us seniors, especially because we’ve worked so hard the past four years building a program,” he said. “It’s finally looking like we have a good chance of winning and going pretty far in the tournament. I’m happy and we’re all excited for what’s to come.”
Brendon White had a big game, too, finishing with 116 total yards (46 rushing, 40 receiving and 30 passing) offensively to go with an interception on defense.
“It’s playoff time, so we got to get these horses out there and ride them a little bit,” Patriots coach Steve Hale said. “I think we’ve done a great job both offensively and defensively of building depth. But, now we’ve got to make sure with each play and each rep that we have a good situation to be successful and we’re using our guys as best we can.”
Mitchell Okuley had a solid game running the Liberty offense. He was an efficient 8-for-10 for 79 yards on Liberty’s first drive and finished with 218 yards overall, while going 21-for-31.
“He’s an outstanding young football player,” Hale said. “He’s started three games and had over 700 yards passing. He made some really nice reads (Friday night) … some really impressive things that a sophomore in high school shouldn’t be able to do.”
Okuley spread it around, too. Ben Rinsma caught five passes for 80 yards and Trey Stablein caught four more for 41.
“There’s a lot to defend when you’ve got Mitch and Brendon and Drew and Ben and all of those guys out there,” Hale said. “Everybody had receiving yards and the best thing about all of it is that Mitch stuck right to the game plan no matter what was happening.”
Okuley found Rosi three times on the first drive for 28 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown on an out-route to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead with 5:47 left in the first quarter.
“Okuley played a great game,” Rosi said. “He’s stepping up as a sophomore quarterback and becoming a leader on this team. He’s a great quarterback – he gave me great balls all game.”
Liberty (11-0) overcame four penalties on that go-ahead first drive.
“I think we did a good job and we won, which is all that matters in the tournament,” Hale said. “We made mental mistakes on offense … we just got to get those corrected. When you make mistakes like that, you survive and move on and that’s all you can really ask for.”
White, who had started at quarterback for most of the year, took advantage of his pass-catching skills early. He had three catches on the initial drive, including a 16-yard reception to set up the Rosi touchdown.
“Being able to help my teammates any way that I can, whether it’s quarterback or receiver or safety – I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team,” White said.
Orange came right back with a J.D. Dayhuff short pass that Sam Almond turned into a 12-yard gain and Jayden Rodgers took a jet sweep 31 yards to the Liberty 20 on the next play.
But, Rosi and Skylar Wahland made back-to-back tackles at the line of scrimmage and Liberty forced a 29-yard Joe Metcalf field goal with 2:31 left in the first quarter.
“(Liberty is) a heck of a football team,” Pioneers coach Zebb Schroeder said. “Just too many times where we stubbed our toe or gave them the ball in good field position or made a mistake. But, tip your cap to (Liberty) – they put pressure on you. They have good football players and good coaches.”
Rosi came up big again on Liberty’s following possession. He made a one-handed catch, which was good for 21 yards.
White followed with a 17-yard run on the next play to set up an Okuley 5-yard scramble to push the lead to 14-3 with 10:33 left in the half.
Later, Griffin Hughes cut in front of a Dayhuff pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown with 2:05 left in the half to extend the lead to 21-3.
But, Orange (6-5) countered. Dayhuff found Zach Harrison for a 46-yard touchdown, who beat Will Fowler on a jump ball at the 20, to cut it to 21-10 with 1:25 left in the half. Harrison had 70 yards receiving on a pair of catches for the Pioneers.
The Orange defense was solid, especially in the second half.
Steve Collins led the way with 7.5 tackles and Jimmy Senisbaugh had seven stops and a pair of fumble recoveries as the Pioneers held Liberty to three points in the second half – an A.J. Smith 36-yard field goal with 8:26 left in the third quarter.
“We had opportunities in the second half,” Schroeder said. “Our defense, again, was lights out in the second half … they put us in a position to win.”
But, Liberty’s defense was just as stout. Kyle Akerman had six tackles, including four tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Will Fowler also led with six tackles and Rosi had a pair of tackles for loss to go with his big day.
Dayhuff found Zach Pfeiffer in the back of the end zone to keep Orange alive, trailing 24-17 with 4:07 left.
But the Liberty offense ran out the clock.
Dayhuff finished 15-for-26 for 180 yards passing and 42 yards rushing on 14 carries. Jack Applegate gained a team-high 48 yards on the ground on 10 carries. Almond caught six balls for 65 yards and Pfeiffer had three catches for 51 yards for the Pioneers.
“We see Zach and Jayden and Luke (Schmeling) and Sam make those plays in practice all the time,” Schroeder said.
Liberty advances to the regional semifinals where it will face Medina Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at a site to be determined.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.