Salina solidifies No. 1 playoff seed with dominating win
Heron O'Neal had a wish list for the Salina Liberty's regular-season finale and they checked all the box.
"I would say 85% of what I wanted to get out of it, I got out of it," O'Neal, the Liberty coach, said after a dominating 54-33 victory over the Wichita Force on Saturday night at the Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane. "It was good to get pretty much everybody out of that game healthy.
"I was happy to sit four starters on offense and defense and actually still win by a pretty good margin. That's something I definitely was happy with."
With two starters on defense and one on offense, plus their backup running back sitting out in a game with nothing on the line, Salina won handily against a Wichita team fighting for its postseason life. The Liberty, who improved to 10-1 overall and 9-1 in the Champions Indoor Football standings, already had clinched home field for throughout the playoffs, while the Force needed a victory to secure one of the remaining spots.
The loss, coupled with a 35-28 Sioux City victory over Omaha and 49-10 Dodge City rout of last-place Wyoming on Saturday, left Wichita on the outside looking in with a final 5-5 overall record and 4-6 CIF mark.
After spotting Wichita a quick touchdown to open the game, the Liberty went in front to stay with less than four minutes gone when Tyrie Adams found Jason Shelley with a 25-yard scoring pass and Jimmy Allen's extra point kick made it 7-6. It was the first of four touchdown catches for Shelley, who finished with five receptions for 61 yards.
"He had four touchdown receptions and two rushes for 10 yards," O'Neal said of Shelley, who saw his role increase with starter Jauhem Byrd sitting out. "If he's not (CIF offensive) players of the week, I don't know who is.
"Four touchdowns in a win on the road is pretty good."
With the Liberty's playoff position already solidified — they will play host to fourth-seeded Dodge City at 6:30 p.m. on July 10 — O'Neal rested veterans Dontra Matthews and Jake Lattimer on defense along with Byrd and running back Dominique Carson. Just as importantly, he got quarterback Tyrie Adams back in the saddle after missing the better part of four games since suffering an injury on the first series at Sioux City on May 15.
I was happy to get Tyrie his first snaps there in the first quarter and a half, and he looked great," O'Neal said of Adams, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 80 yards and three touchdowns, all to Shelley. "He had a couple of mistakes here and there, just from the rust, but it was good to get him out there so he could get rid of some of that rust."
After hitting Shelley with a 4-yard touchdown pass to put the Liberty up 20-13 with 6:45 left in the half, Adams turned the keys over to Mitch Kidd, who finished 6-for-9 passing for 74 yards and three more scores.
"It was fun to see the offense clicking with Tyrie and Mitch, and a big shout out to the offensive line and Shelley for doing their thing," said Liberty defensive tackle Rusty Becker.
In addition to the quarterbacks and Shelley, Salina got 62 yards rushing, including a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter, from Tracy Brooks, plus touchdown catches of 2 yards from Chad Steinwachs and 27 from Ed Smith in the third. Jimmy Allen added a 28-yard field goal as time expired to put the Liberty up 30-19 at halftime, and he drilled a 48-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Liberty finished with 216 yards total offense while holding Wichita to 187. Kendrick Harper and Isiah Barfield each had an interception, while Becker and Shaq Bradford both recorded sacks.
"I think it was a good way for us to keep making sure we show our dominance on defense," Becker said. "We pride ourselves on taking care of our side."
The defense also recovered two fumbles with one leading to a Liberty touchdown and the other ending up with a Wichita score on a bizarre exchange. With Salina up 37-19, Harper scooped up a Jordan Payne fumble in the end zone and brought it out, only to fumble back to Payne, who took it in from 2 yards out.
"I was happy in the end with the defense," O'Neal said. "They played really well for me and got the stops when we needed them and made the plays when we needed them as well.
"And it was good to get that 50 points back up there on the board offensively."
For the Liberty, Steinwachs' touchdown was set up by a 48-yard Deauntre Roberts return of the second-half kickoff to the Wichita 2.
Wichita was led by former McPherson College quarterback Ed Crouch, who completed 14 of 20 passes for 120 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 57 yards and another score. Payne caught seven passes for 74 yards with two touchdown grabs.
If the Liberty beat Dodge City in the first round of the playoffs — they won the regular-season meetings 62-34 and 61-54 — they will play host to the winner between No. 2 seed Omaha and No. 3 Sioux City on July 17.
"The bye week will be crucial for us to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize and know what we're fighting for," Becker said.