Near misses cost Leopards vs. Jefferson

Tribune Chronicle / Eric Murray Liberty’s Dra Rushton, right, takes the snap as Jimmy Jones prepares to take a handoff prior to Liberty’s game against Jefferson on Thursday. The Falcons won, 28-13.

LIBERTY — The Four Seasons’ hit 1963 song “Oh, What a Night,” could perfectly sum up how the Jefferson Falcons were feeling after defeating the Liberty Leopards, 28-13, in the Leopards’ Homecoming game Thursday night.

The appropriately named Falcon running back Jeremiah Knight certainly had the best night of anyone, rushing for 219 yards and three scores.

Ashtabula County’s all-time leading rusher now has 1,812 yards for the season and currently has 4,722 yards (and counting) for his illustrious career. Knight now has four-straight games of at least 200 yards on the ground, as well.

“He (Knight) ran hard, he broke tackles. His cutbacks are just (unbelievable), his vision is unbelievable,” said Jefferson coach Jim Henson, almost at a loss for words. “It’s pretty amazing to watch him run, and I’m sure when you talk to him, he’ll give those guys up front a lot of credit. When they (offensive line) give him a little bit of a hole, he can take off and go.”

Early on, Liberty’s defense did their best to limit Knight, and it seemed to work. Jefferson threw an interception in the end zone on its first drive as Quaishon Campbell picked off the pass. The Leopards then took control of the clock, as they drove 80 yards in 14 plays, taking the lead on a Dra Rushton quarterback keeper that went 19 yards for the score. They led 6-0 after missing a two-point attempt.

It appeared that the Falcons were on their way to another failed drive on their next possession, but a defensive holding call on Liberty put them back in business.

Knight started to heat up, as he broke a 17-yard run, and then later finished the drive by bouncing a run to the outside and scoring from 12 yards out. He also ran in the two-point conversion, giving the Falcons an 8-6 lead.

After Liberty turned the ball over on downs in the red zone, Knight and company got back to work, putting together an 11-play, 78-yard drive that resulted in a Jared Williams 7-yard touchdown run, extending the Falcon lead to 15-6.

The Leopards, meanwhile, continued to struggle in the red zone. They put together another long drive before half but proceeded to run back-to-back quarterback keepers with Rushton from the 5-yard line, which resulted in a Jefferson stop as time expired in the first half.

“We could second guess that now. Yeah, possibly (we could have thrown the ball),” said Liberty coach Chet Allen about the final drive before half. “But, we were running the ball somewhat effectively, and we get down there and we still don’t have that killer instinct (even in) Week 8, to punch the ball in the end zone.

“We don’t have it and it’s hard to find. We can’t waste it on a Tuesday, it’s gotta happen on a game night. We had some plays called that should have went into the end zone, and we just couldn’t execute the right play at the right time. It’s the little things that have killed us all year. We just have to execute better and take care of the football.”

Jefferson continued to open up their lead in the second half as a Liberty lost fumble led to a short field for the Falcons. Knight cashed in by bouncing outside to the left sideline and racing into the for a 35-yard score.

Knight added a third touchdown early in the third quarter after he set up the drive with a 45-yard punt return. Knight took a toss to the left and found the front corner of the end zone for a 10-yard TD to give Jefferson the 28-6 advantage.

When asked after the game if he thought it was only a matter of time before he’d break some big runs against an aggressive Leopard defense, Knight replied, “Yeah, I always know late in the game (that I’ll break off a long run). Conditioning plays a part and I condition hard in the offseason. So, second half is usually my best part of the game.”

Jefferson (4-4) earned a much-needed bounceback victory after a blowout loss to Hubbard a week ago. Liberty (4-4), on the other hand, desperately needed the win, as they found themselves sitting sixth in Division V, Region 17, coming into Thursday night’s game.

The loss is a tough setback in a tough region that includes LaBrae, Garfield and Grand Valley. As for what Liberty will need to do to win their remaining games against Newton Falls and Girard, Allen said it starts with the small stuff.

“I think we’re gonna come back tomorrow, look at the film,” Allen said. “Monday we’ll get back after it for Newton Falls Friday night and execute better and be very detail-oriented, even more so than we have the past eight weeks.”