The middle of the field was open all night for Mitchell Okuley and, fortunately for the Patriots, that’s where Brendon White was roaming out of the slot.
The duo combined for four touchdowns as the Olentangy Liberty football team held off a Medina rally and won going away 45-27 in a Division I regional semifinal Friday night at Arlin Field in Mansfield.
“They were putting a lot of pressure on us, blitzing trying to stop the run,” Patriots coach Steve Hale said. “You can’t have both — you can’t blitz people up the middle and then protect the middle of the field. (Okuley) was just able to find that.”
White and Okuley helped the Patriots (12-0) punch their ticket to a regional final for the first time in school history.
“I give all the credit to my teammates for blocking for me and trusting me even though I have a bum ankle,” White said. “I believe in my guys and we believe in each other.”
White rushed for 125 yards on 15 carries and caught nine passes for 87 yards to lead Liberty in both categories.
“I think he’s getting healthy,” Hale said. “That’s exciting to see. Everybody expects so many things from him. I’m just so happy that he got to play the way he did (Friday night). His ankle looks a little sore, but not like what it’s been.”
Okuley finished with 164 yards passing and Matthew Webb added 110 yards on 18 rushes.
Okuley looked like a sophomore on Liberty’s first drive. He fumbled on the first play while trying to evade pressure before he was intercepted by J.T. Scoarste.
“They gave us a coverage we hadn’t really talked about … they were playing a little bit of man-free,” Hale said. “It caught him off guard.”
After that? Okuley fired three touchdowns to help the Patriots build a 24-0 lead in the first half.
“That kid has grown up under fire so many times this year,” Hale said.
Okuley found White twice through the air. The first one — a 5-yarder over the middle with 6:09 left in the opening frame — was set up by White’s 59-yard run down the left sideline.
“Mitch is a phenomenal quarterback and he can definitely read the field,” White said. “He has a lot of potential to play D-I football.”
The second one was a 2-yard pass on the left side when White beat his man on an out-route to get open on fourth-and-goal with 4:32 left in the half. Griffin Hughes set up the touchdown with an interception on a ball batted at the line by Chase Smith.
“I basically just hung out in the void and happened to be in the right place at the right time when (Smith) tipped the ball,” Hughes said.
White had an 18-yard run and Ben Rinsma went 43 yards on a screen pass to set up Liberty’s second score. Okuley found Drew Rosi over the middle on another 5-yard touchdown with 1:40 left in the first quarter.
Will Fowler ran 23 yards on fourth-and-7 from Liberty’s 18 on a run-or-punt option to set up an A.J. Smith 40-yard field goal with 4:32 left in the half.
But, Medina had been in that situation before. Last week, the Bees trailed fourth-seeded Whitmer 24-0 on the road before coming back to win it on a Jimmy Daw 1-yard touchdown with 2 seconds left.
“We had that film and we talked about it … we actually talked about it at halftime,” Hale said. “We felt like we had them on the ropes and we made a mistake and gave them a chance to get back into the game. I take full responsibility for that.”
Fittingly, it was Daw who got the offense rolling again. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound senior beat his man on a fly route down the right sideline for a 53-yard touchdown from Alex Whittaker to get the Bees (9-3) on the board with 1:25 left in the half.
Demetrius Shannon set up the touchdown with an interception on the previous play for Medina.
Daw scored on a 51-yard pass from Whittaker on Medina’s first drive of the second half to cut the lead to 24-14 with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
The Bees, who started at their own 11, picked up three first downs on the drive, including a Daw 1-yard run on fourth-and-1.
Will Mercurio gave Medina a chance to pull within one score when he recovered a White fumble at Liberty’s 44. But, the Liberty defense forced three incomplete passes as Medina turned it over on downs on the ensuing drive.
“We have a great defense and we have a great defensive coach,” Hughes said about defensive coordinator Jeremy Arend. “I give most of the credit to him because he prepares well for every team. We have a great defensive team … we come through every time.”
Okuley found White over the middle twice on consecutive drives in the final 2 minutes of the third quarter as Liberty pushed the lead to 38-14. Kyle Akerman recovered a fumble on a kickoff to set up the second of those touchdowns.
“I was really proud of the way both teams responded, both offense and defense,” Hale said.
White added an 8-yard touchdown with 7:36 left in the third quarter.
Daw scored on runs of 20 and 4 to round out the scoring for the Bees, finishing with 135 yards receiving on four receptions and 44 yards on the ground. Whittaker passed for 224 yards and Mercurio led with five catches for 37 yards.
Liberty meets third-seeded Lorain in the regional final Friday at 7:30 p.m. at a site to be determined.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.