Call it a gut check. Liberty's defense bent, but didn't break last night.
The Lions stopped host Westminster at the Liberty 2-yard line late in the four quarter, to preserve a 14-10 victory in a Central Maryland Conference game.
"We knew it was on our shoulders and we had to stop them," said Liberty's Joe Pugliese. "We pulled it together and played like a team. Our whole defense deserves a lot of credit."
The Owls (2-2, 0-1) got the ball just before the end of the third quarter and mounted an 11-play drive to get the ball to the Liberty 4-yard line with just under six minutes remaining. On fourth down and three from the four, Westminster's Jamel Smalls ran into Pugliese for only a 2-yard gain and Liberty took over on downs.
The win gave the Lions their first 4-0 start since 1995 and gives them an unblemished record going into next weekend's battle with defending state 3A champion Urbana.
"This was a big win for us," said Liberty coach Ken Johnson, who team is now 1-0 in conference play. "They controlled the football most of the second half, but we made it count when we had to."
Smalls rushed for 73 yards on 20 carries and had an 80-yard kickoff return to lead Westminster.
After a defensive first quarter, things heated up in the second. The Owls took advantage of good field position and drove 15 yards to the Liberty 14, before settling for a 30-yard field goal from junior Sergio Loynaz and a 3-0 lead with 7:56 left in the first half.
Liberty responded on its next possession going 63 yards in 13 plays to take a 7-3 lead. The drive was capped when quarterback Tony Scirica found Robbie Ruch in the back of the end zone from 4 yards out with 3:56 left in the first half.
Westminster wasted little time getting the lead back. Smalls took the ensuing kickoff at his own 20 and bolted 80 yards untouched into the end zone to give Westminster a 10-7 lead with 3:42 left before halftime.
The Lions countered, mounting an 8-play, 70-yard drive to retake the lead, 14-10. This time, Scirica lofted a pass to senior Kevin Magaw from 16 yards out for the score with 56 seconds left in the half.
Liberty's defense had a great first half, limiting the Owls to 31 total yards, while the Lions gained 156.
Westminster controlled the ball most of the second half and mounted several long drives. The Owls, however, could not score. The Lions were limited to only 10 offensive plays after halftime.
"We were out of timeouts when we got down [to the four], so we knew we had to punch it in," said Westminster coach Scott Tobias.
"They made the plays when they had to down the stretch."