Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 | 12:38 a.m.
Even the best defenses aren’t indestructible and are prone to wearing down if repeatedly overextended.
Liberty High learned as much in a 21-10 upset loss to Lone Peak, from Highland, Utah, in its home opener Friday night. The Patriots’ defense worked minor miracles all night to keep their team in the game until the magic finally fizzled in the concluding 13 minutes when exposed in too many vulnerable positions.
“We played a good game on defense,” senior defensive end Luke Toomalatai said, “but it’s a team game.”
Liberty allowed only 166 total yards, forced seven three-and-outs, stuffed a pair of fourth-and-inches attempts and registered four takeaways. But the leaders of the effort like Toomalatai and senior cornerback Cervontes White began cramping up from exhaustion in the second half with the Patriots’ offense unable to keep them off the field for any extended period of time.
Lone Peak’s three scores all came on short fields. The Knights found the end zone on their first possession after junior linebacker Keegan Nitta forced and recovered a fumble off Liberty junior quarterback Noah Faoa at the Patriots’ 35-yard line.
They didn’t score again until less than a minute remained in the third quarter, after returning a punt to the 11-yard line. Lone Peak’s final touchdown came midway through the fourth quarter after Liberty quarterback Victor Epstein fumbled a first-down snap at his own 30-yard line fresh off the Patriots making a seemingly huge fourth-down stop.
“All night, our backs were against the wall and they came up with big stops,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “But (Lone Peak) just made a couple more plays than we did tonight.”
Liberty always figured to endure offensive growing pains this season given the graduation of Kenyon Oblad, the state’s all-time leading passer. But the difficultly intensified after Faoa, who won a preseason competition for the job, played only three possessions against Lone Peak before going out with injury and not returning.
Liberty toggled between Epstein and junior Kanyon Stoneking for the rest of the game, with neither passer ever getting anything going. Under constant pressure, the two backup quarterbacks didn’t combine to complete a single pass until Liberty was down 21-10 late in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots managed only four first downs from the time Faoa exited to when the Knights went up two possessions.
“Noah going out,” Muraco lamented, “that just destroyed our offensive flow.”
Still, Liberty’s defense never let Lone Peak pull away completely. The Patriots’ only touchdown came when Toomalatai picked up a bad snap on a punt and returned it 16 yards to the end zone.
Later, sophomore linebacker Zyrus Fiaseu’s second interception of the game set up a 36-yard field goal from junior Dillon Fedor to put the Patriots up 10-7 midway through the third quarter.
The lead was short-lived.
Other Liberty defensive highlights included a number of run-stuffs from UNLV-committed senior linebacker Kyle Beaudry, blanket coverage by White and junior Gabriel Nickels and multiple tackles-for-loss by junior linebacker Vea Manu. Most of the big plays were wasted by an offense that gained only 144 yards.
Take away the Patriots’ two biggest plays — a pair of long runs by Fiaseu — and the output dips well below the century mark.
“We’ve got to correct some things,” Muraco said. “It’s not one thing. It’s a lot of little things. Our pass protection was terrible today. Some of that was not having QBs who had enough reps in practice to make adjustments and calls to pick up blitzes. They did a great job with their scheme and bringing pressure, and we’ve got to be better than that.”
And the Patriots will have to be better immediately, with IMG Academy, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, coming to town next week. It’s a matchup that seems all the more daunting if the Patriots don’t have their starting quarterback.
Defense alone isn’t always enough.
“Our team is still something else,” Toomalatai said. “We’ve got athletes on the field, and we’re four deep at quarterback, so we’ll be good on that.”