LIBERAL — In the first four weeks of the 2017 football season, the Garden City Buffaloes had found a myriad of avenues to secure victories.
Opportunistic passing touchdowns, interception returns, and occasionally a promising running attack. But the one constant through the wins had been the Buffs’ stingy defense.
That group had yielded just three points in 16 quarters, with opponents scoring on a pick-6 interception and then a field goal — and that came after a Buffs' shanked punt in their own half of the field.
Friday night, the Buffs’ defenders had that touchdown-less streak taken away, and despite being battered, bruised, a little pride perhaps injured, it was the defense that came to the rescue late at Redskin Field in what eventually was a 28-27 survival in a key Western Athletic Conference battle.
A pair of late interceptions — one by sophomore Carlos Acosta and the other by Mr. Do Everything — David Arteaga — preserved this triumph to keep the Buffs unbeaten at 5-0 as they head to Wichita Northwest next week for another big road test.
It was also Acosta, who came up with perhaps the biggest play of the game when he blocked a point-after kick by Liberal’s Cesar Burciaga with 5:23 to go in the game, which turned out to be the difference.
“I just saw the end dude slip down, and it gave me a chance to come off the edge,” a smiling Acosta said afterward. “The quarterback bobbled the snap, and I just was able to get my hand on it.”
Of his interception, Acosta said he was just trying to make sure nothing went deep with the taller Liberal wide receivers.
“We were in cover 4, and I had the flats,” Acosta said. “I was just trying to make a play. It was fortunate.”
Arteaga, too, came up huge in another Superman display, catching four passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, and picking off the final pass of Liberal’s Syris Dunlap with only 30 seconds left — the final nail in Liberal’s coffin.
Only a minute prior, the Buffs had a questionable fumble by Quinton LaPointe that gave the ball back to the Redskins at the Buffs’ 40.
“The defense was challenged all night, and they gave up some stuff, but at the end we went with our bread and butter, and they came up big,” head coach Brian Hill said. “Big players make big plays, and we had a bunch of them tonight. I’m very proud of the kids to come into this environment and play a good Liberal team in a tight game, and come away with a win. Our close game last week (7-3 over Hays) had a big role in how we survived tonight.”
For quarterback Garret Doll, it was a brilliant effort as he threw for 226 yards (16-of-20) with one interception and a fumble, but he also connected for three touchdowns — two to Arteaga covering 52 and 25 yards, and one of 30 yards to Tye Davis.
“It was a gutsy effort by Garret when you get a facemask and get blown up, but still find a way to get out of there and find a receiver,” Hill said of his first-year starter at QB. “It just shows his leadership out there.”
For Doll, it was his best percentage night of the season, but he insisted he felt responsible for almost giving the game back to Liberal.
“I made a couple of mistakes that nearly cost us,” Doll said. “On my pass to Tye, I just looked the safety off to the left, then went back to Tye on the right, and he ran a perfect route and made a great catch. David was just jumping up and down when I saw him on that one, and I somehow got away and hit him. I was on my back when he caught it.”
There were six possession changes in the final 5:23. It was that kind of finish.
Wild, wooly, and nerve-racking.
The first half turned began the see-saw battle between the Buffs and the Redskins.
The Buffs struck paydirt first, getting a 1-yard run by LaPointe midway through the first quarter, when younger brother Kaleb picked off Dunlap and returned it 53 yards to the Liberal 35. Four plays later, the elder LaPointe toe-tipped his way into the end zone and Flores’ PAT boot made it 7-0.
It didn’t take Liberal long to answer, however, as it was Dunlap’s speedy legs that went into high gear on a nifty reverse pivot run, turning it up the middle and out-racing the Buffs secondary from 70 yards out. Cesar Burciaga booted the extra point and it was knotted at 7 with 6:06 left in the first.
Then, the Buffs went back to work on offense, this time Doll and Arteaga hooked up on the 52-yard strike with the elusive Arteaga making two slippery cutbacks and winding his way into the end zone. A Flores PAT boot was good and it was Garden up 14-7 with 1:04 to play in the opening stanza.
In the past, this would have been when Liberal caved. But not this time.
After a pair of three-and-outs by the two teams, Liberal marched 55 yards, all on the ground, putting together four first downs en route to the gold mine. Alan Marquez squeezed his way in from the 5-yard line for a score, and then repeated the same play for a successful two-point conversion, and with 3:51 before the break, the Redskins were in front, 15-14.
It was the first time all season the Buffs trailed.
Doll was picked off on the ensuing possession by Tyrique Chandler, and he returned it to the Buffs’ 17. Two plays later, Dunlap slithered his way in from the 14-yard line by tip-toeing along the left sideline and extending the ball over the goal line. But another two-point try, done because Burciaga had been injured and couldn’t kick, failed, and Liberal led 21-14 with 1:46 remaining.
Garden City started on its own 27, and one big pass to LaPointe, a couple of runs by the senior running back and the Buffs reached the Liberal 25. On second down, Doll scrambled under pressure, was nearly wrapped up, but somehow ran out of the tackle, and then found a wide-open Arteaga just a step into the end zone for the touchdown. Flores’ successful PAT made it 21-all with 0:52 left before halftime.