By Ben Stroup
Liberty’s defense did everything you could ask of it during the first round of the Division I, Region 1 playoffs.
Different story for the offense, though, as six turnovers — one a fumble returned for a touchdown and another an interception in the red zone — did in the 10th-seeded Patriots as the seventh-seeded Comets parlayed a 19-3 halftime lead into a 19-9 win Saturday at Solon’s Stewart Field.
Liberty’s defense did all it could in the loss, limiting Comet quarterback Johnny Mooney, who passed for more than 2,000 yards to go with 30 touchdowns in the regular season, to just 106 yards and one TD. The Patriots picked him off three times, that after he threw just five interceptions all season long.
The Patriots were just as good against the run, limiting the Comets to 10 yards rushing.
The offense just couldn’t hold onto the ball.
The fumble recovery broke the scoring seal as a Ryan McCurry hit on Brendon White forced a fumble Casey Maniglia scooped up and took to the house from 68 yards out with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
McCurry made his second huge defensive play of the first quarter on Liberty’s ensuing series, stepping in front of a pass from Alex Lando for an interception.
Solon (9-2) turned the miscue into points almost immediately, as Mooney found Tim Harmody in the back of the end zone from five yards out on the next play for a 12-0 lead with 41 seconds left in the first. The Comets, as was the case the first time they scored, missed the two-point conversion.
Liberty (7-4) finally got something going midway through the second, setting up shop first-and-goal at the 10 after a Solon personal foul. White was stuffed on a third-down pitch, though, and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal — a 22-yarder A.J. Smith made to make it a 12-3 game with 4:28 left in the half.
The Comets bounced back, taking advantage of a fumble — the Patriots’ fourth turnover of the half — to account for the 16-point halftime spread. Gil Barksdale powered into the end zone from two yards out several plays after the change of possession. The TD was set up by a 43-yard catch and run by Anthony Zavarella on third down.
The Patriots tightened things up a bit when Lando found Ed Warriner for a seven-yard scoring strike with 11:07 left in the fourth, but neither team was able to manage much the rest of the way as Solon advanced to the second round and a date with No. 2 Stow while Liberty saw a solid season come to a close.
Lando completed 24 of his 45 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown. He also had three interceptions in the setback. Johnny Wiseman was his top target, finishing with 15 grabs covering 149 yards.
The Patriots, led by White’s 33 yards on 11 carries, managed just 47 yards rushing.
Follow Ben Stroup on Twitter @delgazette_ben.