CHANDLER - There's something about the second half of Open Division game in Chandler that brings out the best in Liberty football.
Last year the Lions outscored Chandler 21-0 to tie the Open semifinal at 28 and force overtime before falling 35-34 to the evental champions. Liberty was back Nov. 26 and after falling behind Chandler Basha 10-0 and then 20-14 at halfime, the visitors simply dominated the Bears in a 24-0 second half tour de force.
After halftime #6 Liberty (9-2) controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage, and tweaked its tactics. But to combat #3 Basha (10-1) and its star-studded roster the Lions needed some star turns of their own.
There was a buzz all season for sophomore quarterback Navi Bruzon (17 carries, 157 yards, two touchdowns, 12-13 passing, 129 yards and a touchdown) and junior defensive end My'Keil Gardner (4.5 sacks, seven tackles). In Friday night's 38-20 win, both stepped into statewide spotlight.
"You felt the momentum on our side. No hate to Basha but we've been in a lot of games like this, where it's tough toward the end of the game. We knew if it was a close game, we'd come out with a win," Bruzon said. "No disrespect to Basha. They're a great team. But we believed in ourselves."
The win provides Liberty with another trip to Chandler and another shot at the kingpin. #2 Chandler (10-1) came back to beat #7 Queen Creek (8-3) 48-28 on Nov. 26.
The Wolves have won the state's toughest division five years in a row, and they've knocked off Liberty three times in the last two years. In addition to last year's instant classic, Chandler shut out the Lions in the second half of a 41-21 win Sept. 24 - that game was tied at 21 at halftime.
"We're kind of hoping it is how it was last year. When we faced them the first time we didn't play as well. The second time we played better. We're hopinfg for that last push that will get us a victory," senior safety Jax Stam said.
It looked like the Lions season would end with a whimper in southern Chandler. In building a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Bears overwhelmed Liberty with their speed on both sides of the ball.
Sophomore quarterback Demond Williams dashed for 36 yards on the home team's first drive to set up a 12-yard jet sweep for a touchdown by junior Cole Martin. Meanwhile, Liberty went three and out on its first three possessions.
"We knew we had to win at the point of attack. We scrimmaged them and thought we won the point of attack then. Their team speed is as good as anyone in the state. Their defensive line and front was as fast as we've seen in a long time," Liberty coach Colin Thomas said. "They gave us some challenges. But again our kids stay with it. I wasn't shocked by that at all."
A false start on fourth down and 1 caused the Bears to punt to start the second quarter. Liberty started its fourth offensive drive and Bruzon his second - he alternated with junior quarterback Dom Ochoa in the first half.
In less than two minutes and on four plays the offense chewed up 68 yards on the zone read between Bruzon and junior running back Zach Wallace. Bruzon dashed for 17 on the third play to set up Wallace's 31-yard off tackle touchdown.
A scrum developed on a Basha running play and a Liberty post-play personal foul moved the Bears to the Lions' 20. After one of the Lions' 10 sacks, Williams rolled out on third and goal from the 11, weaved through the defense and dove in for the touchdown, giving the home team a 17-7 lead with 3:24 until halftime.
"We watched on film for the last two weeks and realized that he really likes to go to his right, so we wanted to force him to his opposite side and not let him get out of the pocket. He's a good player so those things are going to happen. But after that we kind of shut him down," Gardner said.
While the second half won the game for the Lions, the play and decision of the game may have came in the first half. With about a minute left they faced fourth and 1 from the Basha 47.
To Thomas it wasn't a difficult choice. He tends to be an aggressive play caller anyway, even if Liberty punted Basha's offense or Martin on the return could strike quickly, and the Bears would get the ball to start the second half.
Wallace picked up six to continue the drive. Three plays later, Bruzon placed a 17-yard touchdown strike to junior receiver Grant Brunelle right over the defensive back's shoulder and it was 17-14.
"When we get moving and playing our type of game we're really tough. Early on we weren't able to do that. We had the one drive where Navi got us going. The next drive Dom's in and we had a big run that would have been a first down called back. Ultimately once we got going we thought we could hit them with body blows and that our depth was better," Thomas said. "We're pretty aggressive on fourth down. On that one I was nervous because if we missed it they were going to get the ball again. But we needed to get the momentum going into half. And punting the ball to them ... I've never been as nervous to punt or kick off the ball. (Martin) is maybe the best returner in the country."
#WestValleyPreps— Richard Smith (@RsmithYWV) November 27, 2021
Halftime @bashagridiron 20@LibertyFBLions 14
Liberty converts 4th and 1 at the Basha 49. @zachwallaceaz 6 run. @navibruzon 17-yard TD pass to Grant Brunelle (second half of that below) .
Short kickoff allows Basha to set up Miller’s 42-yard FG and it’s good pic.twitter.com/ARgwYTg5jK
Wary of Martin on the return, Liberty kicked it short with 25 seconds left and junior Deshaun Buchannan returned it to midfield. The Bears gained 25 yards and finished the half with senior Trevor Miller drilling a 42-yard field goal for a 20-14 lead.
That was about the last highlight for the home crowd. Liberty's defense forced a punt on the first tird quarter drive and the offense took over at its own 8 with Bruzon running things the rest of the way.
"We're very lucky we've got two great guys. Last week (against Centennial) at halftime we decided to go with Dom because he fit that game better. Tonight Navi was tremendous and really good in that second half," Thomas said.
He immediately rewarded his coach's faith by slipping through tiny cracks in the middle of the defense and accelerating for 50 yards.
"It's a totally different game to me, to be honest. My first start was against Sunrise, our rival, with 9,000 people there," Bruzon said. "This game was a lot like that. We started really slow and kicked it in. Having that under my belt really helped me become a better player."
From there the offense broke out a double wing alignment and Bruzon racked up more rushing yards, then burrowed in from the 1 to tie. Sophomore Nathan Hawkins' extra point gave the visitors their first lead at 21-20.
#WestValleyPreps @navibruzon goes straight Lamar Jackson, slipping through the traffic in the line and bursting for 50 to Basha 40. Liberty then lines up almost in a double wing and Bruzon spins off a draw fake for 2 big gains. Then he takes in 1 TD 21-20 @LibertyFBLions 6:42 3Q pic.twitter.com/lRO7TeTKJ9— Richard Smith (@RsmithYWV) November 27, 2021
The defense forced a quick three-and-out and set up good field position at the 42. On third and five from the Bears' 38 Bruzon hit Brunelle for 17, but an illegal man downfield penalty wiped it out.
So on third and 10 Bruzon simply dropped back and connected with Brunelle again for 29 this time. Two plays later Wallace ran for a 6-yard score and it was 28-20 late in the third.
#WestValleyPreps— Richard Smith (@RsmithYWV) November 27, 2021
After three @LibertyFBLions 28@bashagridiron 20@navibruzon to Brunelle again for 29 yards on third and 10 at the Basha 38. Two plays later @zachwallaceaz takes a draw for this 6-yard touchdown. pic.twitter.com/PKV7NtLiOR
From there, Liberty dropped the hammer on both sides of the ball. Basha picked up a first down, only for Gardner and Ruiz to sack Williams on consecutive plays and force another punt.
"We don't panic around here. We knew we were physically stronger than these guys so that's what we used. We beat them off the line," Gardner said. "It feels great. Me and #6 Anthony Ruiz had a bunch of sacks between us. I had five sacks on the season so to be in that many in one game is awesome."
Bruzon finished the ensuing drive - and put the game away - with a 3-yard touchdown run.
Then Stam forced and recovered a fumble on a completed pass at the Basha 35.
Stam put a stamp on the win by drilling Martin as he reversed field on a punt return.
"We pride ourselves on that blue collar football," Stam said.
Junior Wesley Grim picked off a jump ball and returned it to the Bears' 10. Hawkins added a 24-yard field goal with 1:15 left to complete the scoring.
For the second straight year Liberty won an Open Division quarterfinal on the road.
"They're obviously very fast and very talented. #9 is a very talented quarterback. But I don't think he's seen the type of defense that we play, once we started hiding and showing different stuff. I was very proud of our defense, how we flew around and played physical football. That was kind of the key to the game," Stam said.
#WestValleyPreps Back-to-back sacks by @mgardner2023 @anthony_ruiz_22 end Basha’s drive before it starts— Richard Smith (@RsmithYWV) November 27, 2021
False start backs Liberty up to midfield but @navibruzon slips through the cracks again and goes for 39 3 plays later he scores from the 3 35-20 @LibertyFBLions 8:13 left pic.twitter.com/CnCbvHn9GL
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