LIBERTY - What a difference a year makes.
After going winless in the 2011 season, the Liberty Leopards clinched the All-American Conference, National Division title - the program's first since 2008 - with a 20-14 comeback win over Lakeview on Friday.
"It feels great," first-year coach Brian Jones said. "I'm proud of these 17 seniors. Last year, they didn't win a football game, and this year they turned it around to become conference champions. I'm very proud of everybody on this football team."
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Liberty’s Tyler Evans (25) runs through Lakeview’s Justin Journey, left, and Zach Kendall (7).
Things didn't look great for the Leopards (8-1, 6-0 AAC National) from the start. The Bulldogs (5-4, 4-2 AAC National) jumped out to a 14-point lead, scoring on the team's first two possessions.
On the team's first series, quarterback Erich Schmitt found Jake Pishotti on a fly route down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown pass at the 7:11 mark, and on the second possession, Elijah Henderson broke a couple of tackles en route to a 28-yard touchdown run.
From there, however, Liberty held Lakeview scoreless, making some adjustments with its front seven.
"(Lakeview) did a good job with their inside run," Jones said. "We were able to slow down our (line)backers a little bit, read some things better, stay gap control and kind of control the run."
With the Liberty defense clamping down after the first two drives, the offense had plenty of time to mount a comeback, and in the second half, it came alive.
The Leopards put together back-to-back touchdown drives starting in the middle of the third quarter.
First, at the 3:47 mark, quarterback Asim Pleas found John Helms all alone in the end zone for a 9-yard score, and after a Lakeview fumble, the senior wide receiver broke a couple of tackles on a short pass to complete a 7-yard score, giving Liberty the lead it would not relinquish with 10:16 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"We're a strong second-half team," Helms said. "Sometimes, we come out in the first half not ready - today was one of those days. We picked it up in the second half. We had a good talk in the locker room. We came out and we did what we had to do to win."
Despite struggling offensively in the second half, the Bulldogs didn't go quietly.
Having no timeouts left, Lakeview started a drive from its own 20-yard line and with 2:44 remaining. The offense marched down to the Liberty 16-yard line and had four chances to create the game-winning touchdown.
The Bulldogs came close to getting that touchdown, when on the game's final play Schmitt threw into the back corner of the end zone to Ryan Pishotti, who couldn't come down with the ball.
"Our kids represented themselves well," Lakeview coach Tom Pavlansky said. "I know we fell short, but we battled right through to the end."
Although enjoying the win and the conference title, Jones said the team still has work to do.
"We have to enjoy this one for 24 hours and flip the switch," he said. "Things can change. It's a great feat for us, but we still have another week yet."