On the road against a tough Liberty squad, Buchanan needed a spark down 10-8 at halftime with momentum swinging in the wrong direction.
The Bears got that spark and then some.
Ignited by a blocked punt late in the third quarter, Levi Willems’ exploded for three second-half touchdown runs as Buchanan’s defense bottled up Liberty-Bakersfield in a 28-13 victory, a win that holds major playoff implications as the Bears improved to 4-0.
“You have to tip your hat to Liberty, they are well coached and came out ready,” Buchanan coach Matt Giordano said. “As coaches we decided that we have to play with poise in the second half without a sense of panic but with urgency.”
The upswing started with 1:09 left in the third quarter and down 13-8. That’s when Buchanan’s Race Mahlum’s boomed a punt that was downed at the 6-yard line. After the Bears defense held firm, Chase Bibler blocked a Patriots punt and two plays later Willems ran it in from seven yards out for a 14-13 lead.
That was just the beginning for Willems, who spelled junior five-star running back Kendall Milton.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior scored on third-and-11 from the 12-yard line with 8:57 left in the game and then sealed the deal with a 9-yard burst with just under three minutes left for a 28-13 lead.
“When I get the opportunity I try to rise up,” Willems said. “I have to give credit to my o-line in the second half. I was just happy to put my team ahead … we were trying to break their [Liberty’s] will.”
Giordano had high praise for Willems, who finished with 114 yards on 14 carries.
“It’s a testament to hard work, he worked his tailed off all off-season,” Giordano said. “It showed how hard work pays off.”
Milton was held to zero yards on seven carries.
Coming into the game, Buchanan’s defense had only given up three touchdowns through three games. There was certainly no let up as the Bears held Liberty bulldozing running back Sam Stewart out of the end zone and to just 65 yards on 15 carries.
Giordano, a 2000 Buchanan grad who played in the NFL for eight years and won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, credited defensive coaches Mike Vogt, Chris Bessinger, Ryan Gutierrez and Christian Parra for designing a great game plan.
Liberty’s only touchdown of the game was set up after a backward pass from sophomore quarterback DJ Stevenson that went off the outstretched hand of Milton with 39 seconds left in the half and recovered by Liberty at the 3-yard line.
Liberty increased the lead to 13-8 after a 20-yard field goal with just over five minutes left in the third, however, Buchanan would score the final 20 points.
Buchanan scored its first touchdown on Jalen Cropper’s 3-yard touchdown run out of the shotgun with 10:46 in the first quarter.
Senior Brock Jones intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter, a play he read quarterback Hector Gonzalez’s eyes and “went up and got it,” which led to Willems’ final touchdown run.
The win sends the Bears into their bye week before taking on national power De La Salle on Sept. 22 followed by the TRAC opener at Central on Sept. 29.
“Now we need to reflect, rest, recover and recharge. We got some important weeks coming up,” Giordano said. “Our coaching staff believes in these young men and believes they can do great things.”