Liberty coach Colin Thomas thought the hour-and-a-half weather delay Friday night helped his team.
It gave them a chance to focus, calm any nerves they had, and game-plan for what was the marquee matchup in the state against a Basha team that is an Open Division title contender. But what was slated to be a defensive battle quickly turned into a one-sided affair as Liberty jumped out to an early lead and never looked back in its 35-7 rout of the Bears.
“We came here to play football tonight,” Thomas said. “Our kids are special. When we took the field a second time, it was a different energy. We had been through it before, Pinnacle we had a delay, but we came to the field, it was raining and our kids came out with a different type of energy.
“I felt pretty good at that point in time.”
Liberty benefited from a Basha fumble early in its first drive. Star defensive tackle My’Keil Gardner stripped Basha running back Deshaun Buchanan.
It took junior quarterback Navi Bruzon and the Lions just three plays to find the end zone after the turnover, as he connected with senior wide receiver Prince Zombo for a long screen pass that put the Lions at the Basha 1-yard line. Two plays later, Bruzon punched it in.
A three-and-out from Basha’s explosive offense led to another Liberty touchdown. Bruzon once again led the Lions down a short field and connected with tight end Braylon Gardner for a 10-yard score.
The Lions were firing on all cylinders early on offense, and the defense was matching their energy.
“My’Keil made the big strip right away, and we scored,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t shocked they were ready to play. I know our guys. The harder things get, the more we’re going to respond. That’s what they did.”
Basha finally found a rhythm on offense late in the first quarter as junior quarterback Demond Williams and senior running back Deshaun Buchanan led the Bears down the field with their legs. They eventually set themselves up inside the 5-yard line.
But penalties, broken plays and missed blocking assignments resulted in a failed fourth-down try.
Liberty responded with a 97-yard drive that took nearly 6 minutes off the game clock. Senior running back Zach Wallace capped it off with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“We come out, fumble the ball, give them a short field, and you can’t do that against a good team,” Basha coach Chris McDonald said. “We had drives we just couldn’t sustain. Penalty, dropped ball, you can’t do that against a good team.
“We moved the ball, we would just sputter.”
Liberty was in full control midway through the second quarter. The Lions pressured Williams, clogged running lanes and the secondary ran hip to hip with the Bears’ speedy wideouts.
It was a dominant and near-perfect first-half performance from a team that has overpowered every opponent in its path this season, including last year’s Open Division state champion Saguaro and Colorado power Valor Christian.
Bruzon connected with Gardner once more in the second half and on a 32-yard pass to Grant Brunelle for touchdowns. He finished 17 of 19 for 246 yards and four total touchdowns. He also has 37 yards on the ground.
Four Liberty wideouts — Zombo, Brunelle, Gardner and Jaqua Anderson — had 40 or more receiving yards. Anderson also added 26 yards on the ground, complimenting Wallace’s 79.
“I was just taking what they would give me,” Bruzon said. “If they’re giving me screens, coach Thomas will call it. We had a good game plan, and it obviously paid off.”
The win for Liberty cements the Lions as one of the top two teams in the state. Various power rankings have them and Chandler interchanging at No. 1 and 2.
The Wolves have been a thorn in Liberty’s side the last two seasons, beating the Lions two years in a row in the Open Division semifinals. Those games remain in the past for the Lions, as they remain focused on the schedule ahead, which includes a matchup with rival Centennial in early November.
Liberty doesn’t think of each win as a statement victory. The Lions expect to win every week. It’s a mindset Thomas has instilled in his program and one the players adopted quickly.
“It’s only Week 5, so there’s nothing really to be excited over,” Bruzon said. “It was a good win. That was a pretty tough team. But we’ve got a lot of good games to go.”