CLARKSBURG – In the regular season finale Friday at Liberty High School, both the homestanding Mountaineers and the visiting North Marion Huskies had plenty to play for – No. 15 Liberty fighting for a playoff berth and No. 8 North Marion hunting for a home game in the first round.
It was Liberty (8-2) that seized its opportunity, using an aggressive all-around effort to come out on top, 21-8, and locking up a playoff spot in the process.
Coming into Friday’s game, North Marion (7-3) coach Daran Hays said his team had to avoid the slow start that’s plagued it all season, but, unfortunately for the Huskies, that’s exactly what happened.
On its opening drive, Liberty used a 57-yard run by Seth McIntyre to set up a 4-yard touchdown pass from Noah Leggett to Elijah Kyle on fourth down to gain an early 7-0 advantage, putting North Marion behind the 8-ball early on.
“We've been notoriously slow starting, and have given up the first score several times throughout the year, but then we were able to make some adjustments and regroup,” Hays said. “So I wasn’t panicked by the fact that they scored.”
The hungry Mountaineers, however, weren’t satisfied, and caught the Huskies off-guard with an onside kick, recovering the ball and scoring soon after on a 47-yard TD pass from Leggett to Dwayne Buckhannon to extend that lead to 14-0 early in the contest.
From there, Liberty kicker Tanner Moore – who recovered the first onside kick on his own -- perfectly executed another onside kick, this time with McIntyre recovering.
The Mountaineers then went on a drive deep into Husky territory, but Mason Conrad – who made all three PAT attempts in the game -- failed to convert on a 22-yard field goal, giving the Huskies their first possession of the game with just 59 seconds left in the opening quarter.
As proved to be the case most of the evening, North Marion was unable to move the ball effectively and get into the end zone. North Marion ran the ball for just 20 yards in the game and turned it over three times – all of which came on interceptions.
“We just executed poorly in all facets of the game,” Hays said. “We tried to take things that weren’t there. We threw into coverage – which is atypical of us – and we didn’t run the ball particularly hard.
“We just played poorly all the way around.”
Part of North Marion’s struggles came as a result of the inability to convert on the big plays it’s become accustomed to as Liberty sat back in a zone and didn’t let the Husky wide receivers behind them.
“They did a great job of it,” Hays said of Liberty’s defensive strategy. “We just have to be patient enough to take whatever is on the table for us, and we weren’t.”
In the second quarter, North Marion was able to move the ball some in their brief time of possession, but were unable to get into the end zone thanks to the stout Mountaineer defense.
Down 14-0, the Husky defense stopped the bleeding, but the receivers weren’t coming open as they typically do for North Marion, and the offense was urgent and unable to take advantage of the few opportunities that arose.
“Part of that urgency comes from the slow start,” Hays said. “You don’t realize how long a game is. You fall behind 14-0 going into the half, and I thought we had a chance to close it out 14-7 going into the half, but we didn’t. Props to them.”
Down 14-0 to start the third quarter, North Marion took the opening kickoff – the first that wasn’t an onside kick in the game – and quickly got into the end zone when Gunner Murphy hit Tariq Miller with a 34-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-8 after Ty Thorne caught a 2-point conversion toss from Murphy.
On the next drive, a Liberty fumble gave North Marion a short field, but Murphy was picked off by Liberty’s Miller, thwarting any threat. It was the first of Miller’s two interceptions in the game.
The Mountaineers then executed a methodical 15-play drive that extended into the fourth quarter, ending with a Sayveon Beafore 1-yard TD run, making it 21-8.
In the fourth, while Murphy and the offense were able to move the ball, the Liberty defense kept them out of the end zone the rest of the way en route to the win.
North Marion had its chances, with North’s Ethan Raines intercepting a pass in the end zone and the Huskies forcing two Liberty fumbles, but they did not convert them into any points.
In the end, Liberty emerged with the 21-8 victory, outgaining North Marion 334-233 in total yardage, with a 250-20 advantage in rushing.
Murphy ended the game 17-of-30 passing for 233 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off twice by Moore and once by Buckhannon. Tariq Miller was his top target, hauling in seven passes for 122 yards and a score.
McIntyre led the way on the ground for Liberty with 142 yards on 23 carries. Beafore added 53 on the ground and a score while Buckhannon pitched in 45 rushing yards to go along with his TD catch and interception.
Now, Liberty will enter the postseason with a projected 12 seed and matchup on the road at No. 5 Keyser. North Marion is projected to garner the No. 14 seed, with a trip to No. 3 Poca ahead.
While North Marion is disappointed with Friday’s loss and missing out on the chance to host in the postseason, it’s ready for the challenge that lies ahead.
“It’s a new season,” Hays said. “Realistically the records don’t matter for anything other than homefield.”
The challenge is one that they’re up for, but Hays knows that his team will not be able to succumb to the issues that plagued them Friday. Whether it’s the field conditions, weather or anything else, his squad will have to bounce back and regroup once the playoffs begin.
“We have to be tougher,” Hays said of the upcoming playoff game. “We may have to play on a grass field. If we go to Poca that’s exactly what we’ll do. We can’t let the elements dictate our performance, and that’s what we did tonight. We have to be a lot better than that.”
Official playoff seeds, game times and dates will be released in the upcoming days.
Follow Sean McNamara on Twitter @SMcNamaraWV.
Liberty 21 North Marion 8
Liberty (8-2) North Marion (7-3)
LIB - 14 0 0 7 - 21
NM - 0 0 8 0 - 8
LIB – Elijah Kyle 4-yard pass from Noah Leggett (Mason Conrad kick)
LIB – Dwayne Buckhannon 47-yard pass from Leggettt (Conrad kick)
NM – Tariq Miller 34-yard pass from Gunner Murphy (Ty Thorne catch)
LIB – Sayveon Beafore 1-yard run (Conrad kick)
First Downs 15 14
Rush/Pass/Penalty 12/2/1 1/13/0
Rush Plays 56 13
Rush Yards 250 20
Yards per Rush 4.6 1.5
Pass Plays (c/a/I) 4/7/1 17/30/3
Pass Yards 84 233
Total Plays 63 43
Total Yards 334 253
Yards Per Play 5.3 5.9
Penalties/Yards 9/80 6/45
RUSHING: LIB – Seth McIntyre 23-142, Sayveon Beafore 14-53 1 TD, Dwayne Buckhannon 11-45, Noah Leggett 7-8, Bryce Stearns 1-2. NM – Ricky Newbrough 4-19, Hunter Kuhn 2-1, Jahkari Mesidor 2-13, Tariq Miller 1-(-2), Ty Thorne 1-2, Gunner Murphy 3-(-13). PASSING: LIB – Noah Leggett 4-7-1 84 yards 2 TD. NM – Gunner Murphy 17-30-3 233 yards 1 TD. RECEIVING: LIB – Dwayne Buckhannon 1-47 1 TD, Elijah Kyle 2-17 1 TD, Sayveon Beafore 1-20. NM - Tariq Miller 7-122 1 TD, Jahkari Mesidor 4-39, Ethan Raines 2-25, Ty Thorne 2-33, Garrett Conaway 1-13, Ricky Newbrough 1-1.