By RICH KELLY
For the Star Beacon
The competition levels for the Jefferson Falcons in the All-American Conference have been high in all the sports, but football is a game where you compete or get hurt along the way.
The Falcons have shown they belong. In an 0-3 start in AAC competition this season, those three losses have come by a total of four points. It took a huge stop for Liberty on a 2-point conversion attempt by the Falcons in the fourth period for the Leopards to escape with a 16-14 AAC win.
In a showcase game featuring freshman running backs for both teams, it was a matter of a couple big plays for Liberty by Lynn Bowden that made the difference as Falcon frosh Jeremiah Knight also had a solid game.
Bowden ran for 195 yards on 23 carries, but his play as time ran out in the first half proved to be the difference in the ballgame.
After the Falcons (1-4- 0-3 in AAC) had an 18-play drive that covered much of the second period but netted zero points, Liberty drove from its own 20 to the Falcon 7 with 10 seconds left. A fourth-down field-goal attempt was next, but Jefferson’s Joey Baitt smashed his way through blockers to swat the kick away, then scooped it and outran the Leopards to the end zone for a Falcon score. The conversion play tied the game at 8-8 with 10 seconds left before halftime, and the festive Jefferson homecoming crowd was pumped.
Bowden quickly took the air out of their sails, taking the ensuing kickoff at his 21 and dashing up the left sideline the distance as time ran out.
Jefferson, playing without three players serving the second of two-game suspensions because of conduct-code violations, could have folded the tent, but that is not the style of coach Jimmy Henson, and the Falcons battled into the fourth period before scoring again.
A stout Falcon defense, led by Justin Butler, Kyle Nelson and Hunter Pridemore, stiflled the speedy Leopards in the second half. It led to another long drive for Jefferson to start the fourth period.
This one covered 79 yards and used nearly 6 minutes on the clock. Sparked by a Cole Erdel 6-yard run from punt formation on fourth down, the Falcons ended up scoring their second touchdown on a screen pass over the middle from Lucas Hitchcock to Derek Parker that covered 35 yards.
With 5:34 to play in the game, the Falcons again went for the 2-point conversion. Knight appeared to push his way into the end zone, but officials ruled that he did not get the ball over the goal line. Starting from the Falcon 48 after an unsuccessful onside kickoff try, Liberty (3-2, 2-0 in AAC) drove the ball to the Jefferson 4 before turning it over on downs with 1:14 left to play.
“The last couple games, our offensive line has really begun to come together,” Jefferson coach Jimmy Henson said. “Jeremiah Knight has done a good job running the ball, and Lucas Hitchcock has started settling into his role at quarterback. He really was solid tonight at pulling the ball back out and running with it when we needed a big play. Our receivers really did a nice job, too.
“When you think about it, our defense only gave up one touchdown to a very potent offense. I couldn’t be prouder of how our kids played tonight.”
Taking over at their own 4 at the end and out of timeouts, Jefferson, with the help of the Leopards, put the outcome in doubt one final time.
A pair of penalties on Liberty gave the Falcons a first down at their own 32. The one that resulted in the first down as a personal-foul of 15 yards. It looked like the Falcons, forced into passing situations, had finally shot themselves in the foot for the last time when they were tagged with an intentional-grounding penalty with 35 seconds left.
Hitchcock found Parker again over the middle, this time for 30 yards, to set up first down at midfield with 23 ticks left.
A pair of incompletions, one which went right through the hands of the receiver, led to a third-down pass that found itself in the hands of Liberty’s Tyler Brady, and the contest was settled.
“I am really excited about how our kids played on defense tonight,” Liberty coach Kevin Cylar said. “They really settled into the game after the second change of possessions in the first period. Jefferson really played a tough game tonight, too. Penalties hurt us, especially late in the game. Our offensive line has really improved , though. They did a great job of staying on their blocks, and it seems like Lynn just put on Superman’s cape and carried us.”
“I’ve just got to give it up to our offensive line first,” Bowden, the 6-foot, 170-pound freshman tailback, said. He also ran for a first down in the first half from punt formation, a play that kept the ball away from the Falcons.
“I just watched which way the outside backers were going,” Bowden said. “If they dropped back, I took off for the edges.”
Hitchcock passed for 127 yards on 8 of 16 passes, but the Falcons didn’t get many longer runs as Liberty was ready for Knight. He gained just 64 yards on 19 carries, usually with several Leopards riding him down.
The Falcon passing game was sharp, though. Just not quite sharp enough at the end.
The loss did not dishearten the Falcon leader.
“Our kids played hard all night,” Henson said. “We were really geared up for homecoming, as well as playing the defending league champions tonight. I’m just so proud of how they gave me everything they had.
“We left nothing on the field tonight. It was just a great high school football game that we came up half a yard short in.”
Kelly is a freelance writer from Jefferson.