Omaha Beef rally to hand Salina Liberty first loss of the season, 39-35

The Salina Liberty are perfect no more.

The Omaha Beef scored the game's last 20 points, including a 4-yard touchdown connection between former Liberty players Andrew Jackson and Tyler Jones with 12 seconds left, Saturday night to edge Salina, 39-35, at Ralston Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

The touchdown completed a 16-point comeback for the Beef, who kept alive their hopes for home field advantage throughout the Champions Indoor Football playoffs with two regular-season games. The Liberty, meanwhile, need to win just one of their last two to ensure that they won't have to leave Salina during the postseason.

"We left a lot of points on the board, offense, defense and special teams," Liberty coach Heron O'Neal said of the loss, which dropped Salina to 8-1 overall and 7-1 in the CIF. "We had our opportunities the whole game and didn't take advantage of most of them, and when that happens against a food football team on the road it's tough to win.

"It was a good lesson to learn, and now it's back to the drawing board."

The loss was definitely a group effort for the Liberty, who appeared to be well in control after Mitch Kidd hit Jauhem Byrd for a 4-yard touchdown to go up 35-19 with 3:01 left in the third quarter. But it was all downhill from there.

Omaha scored three times in the last 17 minutes while Jimmy Allen missed a short field goal — his second of the game — and Kidd came up inch short of a first down that could have clinched allowed the Liberty to run out the clock.

"I'd never put that on one person," O'Neal said. "All our hands were in this one. It wasn't just field goal kicking."

More:Salina Liberty quarterbacks Tyrie Adams and Mitch Kidd are an effective one-two punch

Salina still led 35-32 after Norman Darden scored on a 6-yard run for Omaha with 5:33 left. The Liberty then picked up a big first down on Kidd's 10-yard completion to Byrd with under two minutes left.

Tracy Brooks then picked up 2 yards on the ground, Kidd threw and ran for 6 yards on third down to the Beef 13, setting up a crucial fourth-and-2. Omaha used two timeouts and the one-minute warning, leaving 51 seconds on the clock after Kidd's lunge for the first-down marker came up literally one inch short.

That was all Jackson, who led the Liberty to a division title in 2019, needed. On the first play, he hit Jones near midfield for what turned into a back-breaking 28-yard gain when Jones got up after a diving catch and advanced the ball to the 10-yard line.

"We didn't finish the play. That's what it came down to," O'Neal said of the Liberty's failure to touch Jones down after the catch.

Jackson hit Norman Darden for 5 yards to the 5, and Omaha used its final timeout with 18 seconds left, and after he threw incomplete to Montero Debose at the 15-second mark, he found Jones over the middle for the game winner.

The Liberty picked up a first down to the Omaha 19-yard line with 3 seconds on the clock, but Kidd's pass toward Chad Steinwachs went wide out of bounds as time expired.

Statistically, the game was a near-dead heat, with Salina picking up 232 yards total offense to 230 for the Beef. Kidd, who made his second straight start at quarterback in place of Tyrie Adams, completed 19 of 30 passes for 196 yards and four touchdowns — all four to Byrd — and rushed for another score, while Jackson was 22 of 31 for 202 yards and three scores.

Brooks led Salina on the ground with 38 yards on eight carries, while Deshawn Jones ran for 19 yards and a touchdown on eight carries for Omaha. Byrd had nine catches for 96 yards to pace the Liberty, with Tyler Jones grabbing six for 59 yards and Rashad Pargo — another former Liberty standout — catching four for 55 yards and a score.

With the victory, Omaha remained in second place in the CIF at 5-3, 6-3 overall. But the Beef would have to win both remaining games and have the Liberty lose its last two to tie for the regular-season title.

The Liberty play their final regular-season home game at 6:30 p.m. next Saturday against the Sioux City Bandits at Tony's Pizza Events Center, then finish up at Wichita on June 26.

"I wouldn't say we just forget about this and move on," O'Neal said of the loss. "We'll let it sting, then we'll look at film and make the necessary corrections.

"But I'm not just going to just flush this down the toilet, either. We lost on the road against a tough team that had won four of its last five."

Adams, who had been the Liberty's starting quarterback before hurting his knee early in a May 15 victory at Sioux City, was physically cleared to play against Omaha and traveled with the team, but was not on the active roster for the game. O'Neal called it a "coach's decision."

After Omaha opened the scoring on a 24-yard pass from Jackson to Pargo, Salina was in control most of the game, tying it at the end of one quarter on a 19-yard Kidd-to-Byrd touchdown and going up 21-13 at halftime. The Beef closed within two on a touchdown to open the second half, but two more scoring strikes from Kidd to Byrd put the Liberty back in front by 16 late in the third period.

"I just felt like we came out flat on both sides of the ball, and it took us two drives to reach the intensity we need to compete against a playoff football team," O'Neal said. "Once we got going, we were pretty good, but then we fell flat in the fourth quarter.

"But we just have to win one of these next two games to give us our goal of home field throughout the playoffs," O'Neal said. "We have great veteran leaders and great coaches who will put us in good position.

"Everybody got a little spoiled when we went 8-0, but we just have to address our issues and move on from there."