They appeared to be clear signals that the bear was tired of being poked, a trio of explosive, turf-scorching touchdown plays that gave defending state champion Liberty Christian a three-score lead in the third quarter of Saturday’s Class 1B eight-man state play-in game at Chiawana High School.
But Cusick responded with a resounding run of its own, scoring five consecutive touchdowns to snatch a 54-40 win away from the Patriots and ending the season for the defending state champions.
Liberty Christian’s third-quarter burst broke open a close game at the half.
John Lesser ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run. Evon Branton broke an 82-yarder to the house. Cody Daniels snagged a pass from Taylor Lindquist and turned it into a 55-yard touchdown. With three successful two-point conversions, the second-ranked Patriots had, in just over eight third-quarter minutes, extended a 40-20 advantage on Cusick.
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“At halftime, we talked about settling down and fixing things. It gave us the opportunity to spring some big plays,” Liberty Christian coach Mike Olson said. “Those enable you to get back in games, even put ’em away.”
They can also be turned against you.
Cusick erupted for 34 unanswered points over the final 15 minutes, using touchdowns on a kickoff return and an interception to seize and hold momentum. The unranked Panthers avenged last year’s semifinal loss ot the Patriots.
“We’ve never had an opportunity to knock the defending champs out,” said Cusick coach Sonny Finley. “This is a new high for us. We came a long way this year.”
The Patriots (8-2) seemed to be in control after their 24-0 run to open the second half. A strange momentum shift in the first — when Liberty Christian had cruised along with a 16-0 lead until surrendering three Cusick touchdows in the final 6:28 of the second quarter — appeared to be just that: strange.
“I knew our team had enough character to be able to respond to that,” said Olson, referring to the wobbly first-half finish.
“We knew we could come back,” added Daniels, who helped build the first-quarter lead with a 6-yard touchdown catch. “But the game’s never over.”
Not with the uncharacteristic ball-security issues that plagued the Patriots on Saturday. Liberty Christian lost two fumbles in the first half, one which led directly to Alec Bluff’s 25-yard touchdown run to make it 20-16, Cusick.
By the end of the game, those seemed like the good ol’ days.
First came a breakdown on special teams, when a kickoff that backed Cusick returner Chris Reynolds into a corner instead saw the Panthers speedster bolt 92 yards for a touchdown and slice the LC lead to 40-28 with 2:59 left in the third.
Then came a Lindquist pass intercepted by Bluff and returned 55 yards for a score.
After turning the ball over on downs, Liberty Christian surrendered a 6-yard touchdown run to Bluff, falling behind 42-40 moments into the fourth quarter.
And on their next snap, the Patriots lost a fumble that Bluff recovered on the LC 14, setting up Eli Peterson’s 7-yard touchdown run.
“One thing that disappointed me was that we turned the ball over,” said Olson. “That’s something we just don’t usually do. We suffered the consequences.”
The Patriots will lose four seniors to graduation, including players like Branton (four carries, 84 yards) and Lindquist (92 yards of offense), who made big impacts Saturday. But they’ll return Lesser (20 carries, 136 yards), Daniels (six catches, 114 yards, two TDs) and other talents necessary for sustained contention.
“For the injuries and setbacks we had throughout the year, it was a good season,” said Daniels. “I want to see (Cusick) next year.”
Cusick 0 20 16 18 -- 54
Liberty Christian 8 8 24 0 -- 40
LC -- Taylor Lindquist 1 run (Lindquist run), 9:08
LC -- Cody Daniels 50 pass from Lindquist (Daniels run), 7:02
C -- Alec Bluff 50 pass from Tyson Shanholtzer (run failed), 6:28
C -- Shanholtzer 6 run (run failed), 1:11
C -- Bluff 25 pass from Shanholtzer (Shanholtzer run), :53.8
LC -- John Lesser 68 run (Lindquist run), 11:38
LC -- Evon Branton 82 run (Daniels pass from Lindquist), 8:08
LC -- Daniels 55 pass from Lindquist (Daniels pass from Lindquist), 3:13
C -- Chris Reynolds 92 kick return (Shanholtzer run), 2:59
C -- Bluff 55 INT return (Shanholtzer run), 1:29
C -- Bluff 6 run (run failed), 10:10
C -- Eli Peterson 7 run (run failed), 8:41
C -- Peterson 6 run (run failed), 2:36
RUSHING -- C: Peterson 15-87, Bluff 10-46, Shanholtzer 9-6; LC: John Lesser 20-136, Evon Branton 4-84, Taylor Lindquist 13-6.
PASSING -- C: Shanholtzer 15-for-23, 221 yards, two TDs; LC: Lindquist 8-for-18, 93 yards, two TDs, one INT, Lesser 2-for-7, 27 yards.
RECEIVING -- C: Bluff 8-136, Peterson 1-19, S. Finley 1-6, Browneagle 3-53, Reynolds 1-7; LC: Cody Daniels 6-114, John Lesser 4-6.