5 takeaways from Liberty's big statement win over defending Open state champion Saguaro

Richard Obert
Arizona Republic

Peoria Liberty let the state know that West Valley football is for real and that it can play with anybody in Arizona, making clutch plays and controlling the clock to hold off host and defending Open Division state champion Scottsdale Saguaro 26-17 before a big crowd Friday night.

It had a playoff atmosphere with neither team giving in to the other. But, in the end, Liberty's clutch plays and 19-play, 80-yard, second-half scoring drive were too much for the Sabercats to overcome. Here are five takeaways:

1. Maybe the state's most clutch passing duo

Liberty junior quarterback Navi Bruzon and senior wide receiver Prince Zombo can make a claim at that after what they did late in the first half and in the final quarter in two incredible clutch touchdown plays.

Capping an 80-yard, 19-play drive, 15 of which were running plays, Bruzon, on fourth-and-4 from the 11, scrambling out of the pocket, found Zombo for a split second in the end zone for a touchdown. That gave Liberty breathing room at 26-17 with 6:48 to play.

"I thought he was out, because, when I threw it, I got tackled to the ground," Bruzon said. "They signaled a touchdown so I was happy."

With 17 seconds left in the half, Bruzon, escaping pressure, found Zombo for a 15-yard touchdown and a 19-10 lead. Zombo caught the ball, keeping one foot inbounds as he was going out of bounds. After the referee signaled touchdown, Zombo sprinted towards the Liberty crowd to celebrate.

"We faced adversity but it was how we responded," Zombo said.

2. Passing season's first challenge

Liberty had blown out its first three opponents, averaging 50 points a game, and had a week off before facing Saguaro after blowing out Valor Christian in Colorado 50-7 two weeks ago. 

When Devon Dampier hit Mason Whitaker for a touchdown with 8:17 left in the first half, it was the first time Liberty's starting defense gave up a touchdown this year. And it was the first time Liberty trailed in a game.

Liberty bounced back, as the Lions forced a turnover with Oregon-bound defensive end My'Keil Gardner recovering a fumble in Saguaro territory, and Bruzon, the most efficient passer in the state, hit on his last 10 completions in the half for 181 yards and three TDs.

"I'm just proud of the guys," Liberty coach Colin Thomas said. "They're a really good team. They're Open champs. To beat them on their field, I'm proud of them."

3. Keeping Dampier under wraps

Liberty had a great game plan. Keep crafty quarterback Dampier from making big plays. Dampier had been running the football 15 times a game, but he did more handing off and passing than running the ball himself against the Lions.

But he was clutch after Bruzon lost the ball on a sack and Saguaro's Mikey Preston recovered at the Liberty 19 with 5:42 to play in the third quarter. Dampier hit Deric English on an 8-yard play, ran five yards, and, on fourth-and-goal, found a seam and just crossed the goal line on a 4-yard ran to cut Liberty's lead to 19-17.

"I thought we ran the ball well in the second half," coach Jason Mohns said. "I thought the two-back attack with Jaedon (Matthews) and Zaccheus (Cooper) was awesome. I thought our offense moved the ball efficiently all night long. We didn't barely have any possessions in the second half."

4. The drive, ball control

After Saguaro cut the score to 19-17 with 2:33 to play in the third quarter, Saguaro didn't see the ball again until there was under seven minutes to play in the game. That's how long that 19-play, 80-yard scoring drive was for Liberty.

Bruzon was spot-on passing the ball in the first half with his first two passes dropped. Otherwise, he would have had a perfect 12-for-12 half. He had a couple of ball sail over receiver's heads in the second half. But the Lions were intent on running clock after Saguaro cut it to two, and they had 15 run plays with the Double Wing T mixed in at times.

Saguaro had only one possession in the fourth quarter, running just four plays, as Liberty killed the clock at Saguaro's 1 to end the game.

"We had some double wing," Bruzon said. "Me and Coach go over plays, down and distances. I know what he's going to call. We're on the same page."

5. Saguaro's still an Open team but it needs to start winning

Saguaro dropped to 2-3 but this is still an Open Division playoff team (the eight best from the 6A, 5A and 4A conferences make it), playing the most brutal schedule in the state.

The Cats have lost to New Jersey power Bergen Catholic, top-ranked Chandler and now Liberty. Bergen and Chandler at top-10 nationally ranked teams. Liberty (4-0) could soon be a top 25 national team.

Compared to what Saguaro has played the first half of the season, the schedule gets markedly easier the rest of the way.

"It's officially been put on notice by the 6A Conference that this is our reward for winning the Open Division," Mohns said. "It is what it is. At the end of the day, nobody is going to feel sorry for us and we don't feel sorry for ourselves.

"If you want to be an elite team, you've got to beat good teams. I told our kids, 'We're not in the business of moral victories.' I thought we let this one slip away. But close doesn't cut it. We've got to find a way to get over the hump."

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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