Friday, Nov. 20, 2015 | 11:55 p.m.
None of the Patriots panicked. Alex Epstein wouldn’t allow it.
The senior center coursed the home sideline offering encouragement and demanding improvement.
“We always have to fight because I know we’re built to win,” Epstein said. “I’m kind of a shy guy, but once I’m on the field, it’s different.”
Epstein and his offensive-line cohorts cleared the way for the Patriots to score the game’s next 30 points, separating them from the Gators in a 46-35 victory.
The win puts Liberty in position to claim a sixth straight regional championship next Saturday at Basic.
“We’re not worried about that,” senior running back Stephon Sowers said. “We’re worried about getting that state championship. We’re coming for Gorman.”
A shot at the nation’s top-ranked team in Bishop Gorman, which hasn’t lost to a local opponent since 2008, surely waits if Liberty’s offense can duplicate its midgame effectiveness against Green Valley.
Trailing 14-8, the Patriots got the ball at their own 23-yard line with three minutes left in the first half. They proceeded to march the 77 yards to the end zone in 10 plays largely behind Stowers, who recorded a career night with 25 carries for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was all the push my o-line gave me,” Stowers said. “I told them to give me a little bit of room, and I’d work with it.”
Liberty went on to score touchdowns on three of its first four drives in the second half, largely because of the same push. Senior guard Tyus To’omalatai, junior guard Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, senior tackle Nick Tapuala and junior tackle Will Brewer joined with Epstein, who might be the lightest member of the group at 260 pounds, to also never allow any pressure.
Sophomore quarterback Kenyon Oblad went untouched in throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns on 16-for-24 passing. The Patriots registered only two negative plays all night — a fumble in the backfield and a stuffed screen pass — and neither was the line’s fault.
“Over the summer, I think we worked harder than any offensive line in the state,” said Epstein, who transferred in this year from Coronado. “I think we’re the best offensive line in the nation.”
The Gators didn’t consistently enjoy the same amount of time to function on offense. Liberty’s defense racked up five sacks, including two by senior linebacker Kaimi Batoon, and two big plays during the 30-point onslaught.
The Patriots came away with a safety by bringing pressure to force an intentional grounding in the end zone, and then jarred loose a fumble recovered by senior linebacker Mario Garcia on the Gators’ next offensive possession.
By the time Green Valley got back to moving the ball, it was too late. Liberty led 38-13 before junior quarterback A.J. Amelburu, who had 334 yards and four touchdowns on 19-for-33 passing for the night, led three scoring drives in the final 10 minutes.
Senior receiver Isaiah Macklin, who had five receptions for 123 yards, caught two of his three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Amelburu’s other go-to target was sophomore Marquez Powell, who caught five passes for 118 yards.
“They were both amazing,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “Both those kids are big-time players.”
Liberty has big-time players too. Junior receiver Ethan Dedeaux led the team in receiving with 101 yards on three catches while both senior Gavin Caci and junior Darion Acohido went for more than 50 yards and a touchdown.
But no position group was more valuable against the Gators than the one that provided ample space for the skill players. And no player from that offensive line was more valuable than the one who spurred his teammates.
“He’s probably the best center we’ve ever had here at Liberty and we’ve had a lot of really good ones,” Muraco said of Epstein. “He’s smart and has the respect of all the players. He’s the senior, and he gets on them and they respond well to him.”