Friday, Nov. 11, 2016 | 12:10 a.m.
With Liberty’s offense looking like it was mimicking a magician for a stretch of Thursday night’s home playoff game against Silverado, it was fortunate to have a flawless assistant in its defense.
An uncharacteristic vanishing act from the Patriots’ offense in the first half, where it went four straight possessions with no points and only two first downs, was virtually unnoticeable because of the distraction provided by a dominating defense. Liberty’s defense was able to keep the show rolling until the offense’s inevitable reappearance in a 37-6 second-round victory.
“I wasn’t worried about the outcome of the game at all with the way the defense was playing,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said.
The Patriots surrendered less than 50 yards to their neighborhood rival Skyhawks in the first half, and only 178 total. They also didn’t give up any points, as Silverado’s lone score came on senior Nahzi Salih’s fumble recovery return for a touchdown on the final play of the game.
The shutdown performance gives Liberty an opportunity to win its seventh straight Sunrise regional title next week at home against Basic, the same team it’s beaten for the crown the last two seasons.
“We’ve just got to stay focused and look at it like it’s another game,” senior defensive end Noah Espinoza said. “We’ve got to get mentally prepared.”
Espinoza and those alongside him in the front seven like juniors Crishaun Lappin and Jay Kakiva led the way in smoking the Skyhawks. Liberty rendered Silverado’s running game useless early, and the passing game wasn’t much better as the Patriots racked up four sacks.
Silverado only crossed midfield once in the first half.
“We had to carry our offense at first but toward the second half, it started picking up and we connected better as a team,” Espinoza said.
It’s deceiving to say Liberty’s offense got off to a slow start, because it scored within 24 seconds of the game starting. Junior quarterback Kenyon Oblad, who wound up with 213 yards on 17-for-26 passing, found senior receiver Ethan Dedeaux for a 35-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage.
It was after that when the brief disappearance occurred. Liberty didn’t score for another 21 minutes of game time — an eternity for a team that averaged 51.5 points per game during league play.
The Skyhawks set the Patriots up at the 27-yard line after a botched punt snap, but it took a 19-yard run on fourth down from Dedeaux to find the end zone.
“We needed a spark and we were able to get it,” Muraco said.
The Patriots pretty much played like their normal selves from there on out. Long passing plays to Dedeaux, who had 132 yards of offense on the night, and senior Darion Acohido, 48 total yards, set up a 17-yard field goal from freshman Dillon Fedor to make the halftime score 17-0.
They also scored in less than two minutes on their first drive of the second half, with senior running back Bryson Delacruz punching in a one-yard touchdown. Thirty seconds later, Espinoza deflected a pass at the line that landed in the hands of junior Octavion Bell, who returned the interception 35 yards for a touchdown.
“We knew that their passing offense is pretty much all hitches and fades, so if he’s going to take a one- or two-step drop, we’re not going to be able to sack him, so get your hands up and tip the ball,” Muraco said.
Even though Silverado senior running back Keikiokalani Misipeka broke loose a couple times in the second half to finish with 109 rushing yards, Liberty’s defense mostly did exactly as instructed all night. The Patriots have limited opponents effectively all season, but rarely had any pressure with the offense scoring at such a prolific clip.
That changed for a while on Thursday, though no one on the Liberty sidelines was nervous about having to rely on a different unit.
“It helps that we have kids that exclusively play defense and they can really dial into the game plan and execute it,” Muraco said.