Salina clinches home field for playoffs, 37-13
Heron O'Neal told his Salina Liberty defense in no uncertain terms over the past week that it was time to step up their game.
Dontra Matthews heard his coach loud and clear, and he wasn't the only one.
"When we watched film on Monday, Coach O called me out as a defensive captain," said Matthews, whose two interceptions led the way in the Liberty's 37-13 Champions Indoor Football victory over Sioux City on Saturday night at Tony's Pizza Events Center. "I told him, 'I got you.'
"This game we came out and showed him — we held them to 13 points."
In reality, the Liberty defense allowed just one touchdown. The Bandits' other score, with Salina already up by 30 points, came on a kickoff return.
With the victory, the Liberty improved to 9-1 for the season, 8-1 in CIF games, and clinched the league regular-season title outright. That means they will have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, regardless of the outcome in next Saturday's finale at Wichita.
"That's our number one goal," O'Neal said. "We have two goals — to get the No. 1 seed for the playoffs and to win a national championship."
For that to happen, the Liberty needed a stronger effort from their defense, which had struggled in recent weeks, giving up 54 points in a home victory against Dodge City on May 29, then last week allowing 20 straight second-half points in a 39-35 loss at Omaha.
"I can't be mad at anything the defense did," O'Neal said. "They put us in great position all night long.
"Quan (linebacker Naiquan Thomas) played a very good football game for us tonight and put us the right fronts and making sure everybody knew what they were doing. But Detray (Matthews), man, he's back to what he was the first four games of the season."
The Liberty's typically prolific offense sputtered for much of the game, but turned it on in the third quarter with three long Mitch Kidd touchdown passes, two of them to Ed Smith. That turned a 17-7 halftime advantage into a 30-point cushion before a 48-yard kickoff return by Damond Powell with 50 seconds left in the period completed the scoring.
"I think I just did a little bit better job hitting guys," said Kidd, who found Smith for 26 and 36 yards, sandwiched around a 28-yard strike to Jason Shelley, in the third period. "We had guys open all night long, our offensive line did a great job and Ed had a great third quarter.
"I just started getting him the ball where it needed to be."
Kidd, making his third straight start in place of Tyrie Adams at quarterback, came in completing nearly 70% of his passes, was just 11 of 25, but threw for 175 yards and four touchdowns.
Smith had his best game, caught four passes for 89 yards and pushed his league-leading touchdown total to 13.
"It felt good to get in the box again," Smith said. "It was a tough one, but we made it happen."
Defensively, the Liberty held Sioux City (5-5 overall, 4-5 CIF) to 156 total yards, 51 in the second half. Thomas was everywhere, recording a game-high 13 tackles, including a sack, while Matthews had a pass breakup and three tackles to go with his two interceptions.
Defensive end Jake Lattimer, who was back after missing two games with an illness, added three tackles and a sack.
"I've been missing the competition," Lattimer said. "It's a lot better coming out and having my body banged up than sitting at home.
"It felt good after our first loss to have a game like this."
With the return of Lattimer, the Liberty had their full complement of defensive ends, rotating him with Travis Taylor and Shaq Bradford. O'Neal even deployed all three together in some passing situations in what he called "our NASCAR package."
"Getting Lattimer back really helped boost our defensive line," O'Neal said. "We had everybody back on the defensive line and I give them a lot of credit."
As for Matthews, O'Neal made no apologies for calling him on the carpet.
"That's my style," he said with a smile. "There are certain players this team that I coddle, certain ones that I smile and joke with, but there are some of them that I get after them really nastily, and he's one of them that I do that with and he responds to that. He doesn't like all that love and stuff, and you have to tell him just how it is.
"I'm so happy with his maturity. He plays with that rage that's infectious to all of his ballplayers around him, and he's the engine that makes this team go, not just the defense."
The Liberty never trailed in the game, opening with a defensive stop and getting on the board first with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Kidd to Jauhem Byrd. Sioux City tied it with 9:40 left in the half on a 2-yard run by Kamal Cass, but Tracy Brooks' 13-yard run and Jimmy Allen's 48-yard field goal with 55 seconds left gave Salina a 10-point lead at intermission.
The Liberty finished with 235 yards total offense. Brooks finished with 49 rushing yards on 16 carries and caught two passes.
Sioux City quarterback Charles Dowdell was 14 of 32 passing for 111 yards and two interceptions and led the Bandits in rushing with 32 yards on nine attempts.