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Playoffs or bust: Liberty avenges past losses in win over Champion

November 2, 2013
By MATT WAGNER - Tribune Chronicle (mwagner@tribtoday.com) , Underthelights

LIBERTY - For all the success the Liberty Leopards have had the past two years, Champion has been their bogey team.

Going into Friday night's regular-season finale, the Leopards hadn't beaten the Golden Flashes since 2009, and this year's group couldn't forget last season's shocking loss in Week 10 right before the playoffs.

With a playoff spot on the line this season, the Leopards took care of business and likely clinched another week of football with a 24-6 win over the Flashes at Liberty Leopard Stadium.

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"My seniors told me that they haven't beaten Champion for a couple of years," freshman running back Lynn Bowden said. "I told them we had to get this chip off their shoulders for their last game - last time stepping out of the Leopards' Den, last time playing in the Leopards' Den."

The Leopards (7-3, 6-1 All-American Conference, National Division) started off the game on the right note, as Bowden and the kick-return unit provided sparks in the stadium.

After not seeing a single kick go his way in recent weeks, Bowden returned the opening kickoff 89 yards untouched for the opening score. It took him all of 13 seconds to burst through a hole in Champion's coverage unit and leaving the closest Golden Flashes (3-7, 1-6) player eight yards in his dust.

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Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Liberty’s Lynn Bowden (6) returns the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. This was his first of two kickoff returns in the Leopards’ 24-6 victory over Champion.

Then, on the kickoff following a Jacob Rasey 1-yard touchdown run, Bowden showed why teams had refused to kick to him again, the second time having to reverse field and make a few Champion defenders miss before scampering for a 85-yard touchdown.

"I was so happy because I haven't got one kicked to me in three games," Bowden said. "When I just got it, I felt the vibe going through my body - 'I've got to take this back, I've got to get the tempo started.' Then, I saw all my blockers, they got all their blocks, and I just capitalized."

Those special teams touchdowns proved crucial for Liberty, as the Leopards struggled on offense for much of the game and especially in the first half.

Liberty managed just 81 yards of total offense in the first 24 minutes, completing three first downs. Penalties hampered any progress the offense could make, committing all seven of its penalties for 56 yards in the first half.

"The penalties killed us," Liberty coach Kevin Cylar said. "We had big runs and we were moving the ball, but every time we got yardage, (there were) a lot of penalties."

Still, the Leopards' defense held strong for most of the game, bending but not breaking from the pressure of the Champion offense.

The Flashes held a big advantage in time of possession, having the ball for 14:01 more than Liberty, but Champion scored its only points of the game after a fake punt attempt by the Leopards halfway through the first quarter gave the ball to the Flashes at the Liberty 22-yard line.

Champion coach Terry Howell said the team rued giving up those special teams touchdowns and should have been up going into halftime.

"I thought our kids played hard and they executed fairly well," Champion coach Terry Howell said. "Unfortunately, we fell a little short and we got inside the red zone a couple of times, we didn't capitalize.

Now, the Leopards can turn their sights on the playoffs, and Cylar said it was a big deal to return to the playoffs for the second-consecutive year, especially for the senior class.

"I really wanted to win this one for the seniors," Cylar said. "It was most important to get those guys back to the playoffs. That's where they were at last year, and that's the standard that we're trying to set around here."