JEFFERSON - Coming off an emotional win over rival Grand Valley, Jefferson coach Jimmy Henson was afraid his team would come out flat at home against Liberty.
The Falcons certainly were flat offensively, but strong defense and big plays allowed them to overcome those issues to sneak out a 19-12 win at Falcon Pride Stadium.
"Thank God for our defense, huh?" Henson said with a laugh. "I think there was a lot of flatness. We talked about it, we gotta learn to overcome that, but we're not the only people that happens to. If we want to go where we think we can, you gotta win those games."
That's exactly what Jefferson (3-2) was able to do despite accumulating just 91 yards of total offense and committing three turnovers.
But with 5:45 remaining in the game Jon Hubler intercepted a Michael Moamis pass and took it 53 yards for a touchdown to put the Falcons up, 13-12.
"Basically, like coach tells us every day, we do our job and what I did was just did my job," he said. "I didn't do anything special - just read my guy and made a play on the ball."
Hubler also made a game-changing play in the first half.
With the Falcons trailing 6-0 late in the second quarter, he blocked a Moamis punt that set up a Connor Cleveland 7-yard touchdown run with just 16 seconds left in the half.
Henson thought his punt team deserved much of the credit for the win, not just for the blocked punt, but for averaging 39 yards per punt and keeping the ball away from Liberty's dangerous returners.
"The punt team was big tonight," Henson said. "I know everyone will look at that blocked punt before half and it was huge to set up our score. But their punt returner scared me, he's a very athletic kid. Connor punted away from him and it set our defense up to do what we're supposed to do on defense."
The blocked punt and touchdown looked to give Jefferson the momentum headed into the second half, but any thoughts of running away with the win were quickly squashed by the Leopards.
Liberty (0-5) marched 61 yards and Moamis capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
The drive was led by Liberty tailback Sharron Walls, who ran 27 times for 171 yards on the game.
Jefferson seemed incapable of responding as it followed the touchdown with three straight three-and-outs before the Hubler interception.
"Obviously, I feel a lot of pain for these kids ... they're young, but they're playing hard and working hard," Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker, a former Conneaut head coach, said. "They're going to be a good football team, it's just a matter of making youthful mistakes at inopportune times. Most of the game, I thought we played pretty good defense then we turn around and gave them the ball. Big mistakes cost us."
Following Hubler's interception, Jefferson forced a Liberty turnover on downs. Alex Cash picked up a first down on a 17-yard run to the one, the Falcons only first down of the half, then Andy Santiago finished the drive with a touchdown run to make the score 19-12.
"It was a big one," Henson said of the game-sealing drive. "That's a time when you gotta dig down and find a little something and I thought my offensive line did. The second play (of the drive), we saw they were really overloading us to the unbalanced side, so we went back to the short side. The kids blocked well and I thought Alex made a really nice cut."
Hubler felt the Falcons showed heart as the defense picked up the offense when they weren't at their best.
"Basically, it's all about heart and our commitment to each other," he said. "If we're down or something, we try to pick each other up. We just try to make plays and do our jobs and we did that tonight."
Henson agreed with the assessment of his team.
"I told the kids that shows you're winners," he said. "I don't think we played our best football game tonight and they found a way to get it done and that's being a winner. Every time you're not going to have your best. I give them a lot of credit for us not having our best because boy are they fast on defense, holy cow.
"But we found a way to get things done to win it. I'm really proud of the kids for that."
Peluso writes for
the Ashtabula Star Beacon