FINDLAY — Liberty Center ran into its biggest enemy again Saturday night at Findlay’s Donnell Stadium.
It wasn’t Liberty-Benton, the Tigers’ Division V, Region 18 quarterfinal opponent, but the Tigers themselves.
Liberty Center turned the ball over four times in the second half, as the Tigers dropped a 16-7 decision to Liberty-Benton, which will move on to play Lima Central Catholic (11-0) in a regional semifinal next Saturday at a site to be determined.
“This entire year our worst enemy has been ourselves. We have turned the ball over and committed penalties that were untimely. It cost us. Not taking anything away from Liberty-Benton, but we beat ourselves again,” said Liberty Center coach Rex Lingruen, who owns a 228-87 record in 32 years.
“We don’t fumble the ball we win this game.”
The turnover bug really bit in the third quarter when Liberty-Benton (10-1) turned a pair of Tigers’ miscues into scores.
“Our defense hung in there,” said L-B coach Tim Nichols, whose team beat Lima Central Catholic 45-35 in the opening round last year. “They chunked us and chunked us. In the first half we bent a little bit but in the second half we got a couple of fumbles and picks.”
The first big turnover came when Liberty Center’s Sean Westhoven coughed up the ball at the L-B 36. The Eagles rolled into Liberty Center territory thanks to three big plays and a personal foul against the Tigers. When the drive stalled at the 15, Mitch Linhart, who threw for 131 yards on 15-of-24 passing, booted a 32-yard field goal for a 10-7 L-B lead with 4 minutes, 1 second left in the third quarter.
“We are going to ride (Linhart) as far as we can. He runs a little, throws a little, kicks and punts. He is pretty driven,” Nichols said.
On Liberty Center’s next drive, L-B’s Bobby Snook leapt at the line of scrimmage and intercepted a Josh Drain pass, which he returned 16 yards. The Eagles needed 10 plays to go 43 yards with Austin Combs, who had 49 yards on 16 carries, rumbling 6 yards for a touchdown with 7:16 left.
The Tigers, who were penalized eight times, turned the ball over on their final two possessions also.
“We played well enough to win the game, but we turned it over too many times,” said Lingruen, whose team finishes 8-3. “There were some calls that were definitely very questionable.”
The game was tied 7-7 at the half. Linhart tallied on a 2-yard, second-quarter run for L-B.
Liberty Center had no trouble moving the ball on its first possession. The Tigers ran right at Liberty-Benton on 10 of the first 11 plays with Westhoven gaining 40 of the 86 yards on 6 carries. The Tigers caught L-B by surprise when Drain tossed a 35-yard scoring pass to Konnor Pohlman on a flag route.
The Tigers gained just 160 yards the rest of the way. “You can’t simulate how they climb into you so fast (on the line),” Nichols said. “I think it was an adjustment there by us and we got a little more ornery on the line.”
Liberty-Benton had just 203 total yards of offense. Linhart, who ran for 856 yards this season, finished the game with just 20 rushing yards.
“Our offense sputtered a bit but hats off to them,” Nichols said. “That is the most physical football team we have seen in a long time. Now we get to go see if we can play with Lima again.”