By REID TUCKER
Freeport proved itself to be the top dog in the Class 1A regional semifinal football game, overcoming the visiting Liberty County Bulldogs 27-14.
Though Freeport (9-2) had to get past Liberty County (9-2) to advance to the regional finals last year as well (the 35-20 score even showed the same margin of victory), the Nov. 19 matchup played out very differently. Jordan Varner, Nick Ellington and Caleb McCormick all scored touchdowns for Freeport, while Liberty’s came courtesy of Stedman Williams and Alex Marlowe. Freeport passed the ball for 165 yards and rushed for 89, well short of its average 214 yards per game, while Liberty County passed for only 28 but rushed for 275.
Essentially, the whole game was a virtual dead heat and saw the teams trade blow for blow most of the night. However, Freeport’s Dakota Davis made two of his three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including a last minute play with 19 seconds left to go, sealing the deal in favor of the local Bulldogs.
Freeport coach Jim Anderson said that last-minute play to go up two touchdowns over Liberty was more of a calculated risk than it was an icing-on-the-cake moment. He said if his team punted it would still only be up seven points and if the ball went in the end zone that would mean Liberty would get it at the 20. Conversely, Liberty could have gotten the ball on the 50-yard line if a snap over the punter’s head went astray, so it was decided that the best course of action was to make a fade pass and risk Liberty getting the ball on the 30 instead.
“We felt like it was a win-win situation,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that we were trying to run up the score, we were trying to make it so that we had a better chance to win.”
Thanks to that little bit of strategy, Freeport did indeed win. However, the road to that final pass was a tough one and the back-and-forth tone of the game got set early.
Both sides jockeyed for position in the first quarter, though neither set of Bulldogs scored a touchdown in the period. Freeport made it to a fourth-and-goal on the 20-yard line toward the end of the period after facing several delay-of-game penalties and was forced to turn the ball over on downs. Liberty County took possession with less than a minute left and another penalty, this time a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call, on Freeport took the ball a further downfield in Liberty’s direction.
Ellington picked off a stray pass from Liberty’s Nolan Brown with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter and made a 30-odd-yard dash to midfield before being brought down on the 42. Freeport got a first down on the next play thanks to a five-yard penalty on Liberty for a false start and roughly 13 plays later Freeport found itself fourth-and-two within sight of the goal line. Though a penalty put the ball back on the 21, Davis was undeterred, handing the ball off to Ellington, who in turn made an 18-yard pass to Varner in the end zone with 2:21 left (which he followed up with a good point after kick) to give Freeport the 7-0 lead at halftime.
Freeport was handed an unsportsmanlike conduct before the third quarter even began as the players were late to take the field due to the bands’ performances running long. Seizing the opportunity and starting on their 47-yard line, Liberty County’s offense burned the clock on an 11-play drive that saw Brown hit Williams on a 15-yard pass for a touchdown and extra point at 6:41. The first tie of the evening didn’t last long though, as Davis fired a 20-yard pass to McCormick, who ran the ball the rest of the way to a 63-yard touchdown.
The fourth quarter saw the most explosive action of the night, as Liberty County again tied the score after Freeport’s David Wesson fumbled on the 29-yard line. Marlowe eventually ran the ball 21 yards for another touchdown, which coupled by a spot-on point after kick, made the score 14-all with 9:34 left in the game. Freeport returned fire from its 37 with three consecutive first downs, first via the combined efforts of Davis and Brandon Head and later by Wesson, who ran to the 23-yard line.
On the next play, McCormick skirted around Liberty’s dogged d-line to catch a pass from Davis for a combined 19-yard touchdown at 6:15 to put Freeport back in the lead 21-14. Liberty was forced to punt on its next possession, though Freeport was too after it took over the ball on the 37. However, on Liberty’s next (and penultimate) possession, McCormick literally jumped for an interception on the 35-yard line with 1:42 left in the game.
In an unexpected move, Freeport then drove the ball to a fourth-and-eight play with just 26 seconds remaining. Davis found Ellington in the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown seven seconds later and, though Varner missed the kick, Liberty’s fate was all but sealed. Driving the point home, Head came around the outside to sack Liberty’s Brown on the last possession and Freeport took the win 27-14.
Anderson commended his players, saying they had “earned the honor of practicing on Thanksgiving,” as the Bulldogs must face Northview at home on Friday. Though Freeport all but walked away with a 27-13 win over the Chiefs in the regular season, Anderson said both Northview and Blountstown, the other potential team the Bulldogs might have had to face were tough opponents. Nevertheless, he is confident Freeport is ready to take on all comers.
“We’re just glad to be playing,” Anderson said. “We don’t care who we play. As long as we win, we don’t care.”
By REID TUCKER