116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — In some respects, Iowa City Liberty seemed a bit of an afterthought in this “Clash At Kinnick“ game Friday night.
Iowa City High was the bigger school, coming off a renaissance season that saw it unexpectedly advance to the Class 5A playoff semifinals. It was a program with a lot of momentum, a lot of preseason heat with a bona fide D-I college player in linebacker Ben Kueter.
A program ranked sixth, one that crushed Liberty in last year’s opening game.
Yet it was Liberty that was the better football team, and not by just a little bit, in an eyebrow-raising 36-19 win before an estimated 10,000 fans Friday night at Kinnick Stadium. What a performance.
“I did feel like we came in as an underdog,” said Liberty senior lineman Zach Gallagher. “I feel like people overhyped (City High). But we came out and did what we do best.
“This means everything. Everything. Thank the Big O, he helped us get this win. This is what we do: 36-19.”
Big O is Owen Skelley, the sophomore football player and all-around athlete who died by suicide last spring. His death has been a source of motivation for all Liberty athletics teams.
Esepcially this one.
“Honestly, it was more that we didn’t play the best last year,” said Liberty quarterback Graham Beckman, about last season’s 41-0 loss to City in the “Battle For Zeus” at Liberty. “So we really wanted to come out here and get this win. With Owen passing away in March, this means a lot more. To know that he’s watching over us, to know that we were here to play for him.”
Liberty bolted, pun intended, out to an immediate edge, led at halftime by four and put the game away with a superior second-half performance. Liberty surely will find itself ranked in Class 4A next week.
No doubt, after this one.
“It’s about family, right?” said second-year Liberty Coach James Harris, about as hyper as you ever will see a guy postgame. “Our core values are family, passion, accountability and determination. That’s what our seniors have made as their core values, and that’s what you saw tonight.
“I’m ranting and raving, but I’m so proud of our guys.”
Liberty stopped City High on the initial second-half possession, then went on the mother of all drives to extend a four-point halftime lead to 29-19. The Lightning went 92 yards on 19 plays, taking 7:16 off the clock by dinking and diming the football down field.
Beckman connected with tight end Christian Barney for a 4-yard TD on a second-and-goal play. Making his first varsity start, the senior rushed for 48 yards and a touchdown, completing 16 of 24 passes for 234 and three more TDs.
“I’m gonna tell you, Graham Beckman is a special kid,” Harris said. “I think we all saw it tonight, right? He’s a workhorse, a big, strong athletic kid. He took some shots early in the game. All of our guys kept pounding the stone, right? They got the ball at halftime, people are flat, the adrenaline (for them) is spiking. All of a sudden, we come out, regrouped and kept pounding that thing.”
There was no dinking and diming from Liberty on its next possession. After recovering a City High fumble at its own 48, Beckman threw a perfect deep ball to Dallas Miller for 49 yards to the City High 3.
On third-and-goal, Beckman faked a handoff up the middle and connected with a wide-open Ethan Neels for the 1-yard score and a 36-19 lead. Game, set, match at that point.
“Let’s give a lot of credit to those guys,” said City High Coach Mitch Moore. “They played a really passionate football game. They certainly had a plan to protect as long as they could and throw it deep. They weren’t going to run the ball on us, unless they needed short yardage. They wanted to protect and throw it deep, and credit to those guys. I was really impressed with the quarterback, thought he was a really tough kid.”
Moore saw a standout performance from his quarterback as well. Drew Larson threw for 308 yards and a pair of very long touchdown passes of 80 yards to receiver Akili Mattox and 81 to running back Ronnie Major.
City High’s other TD also came courtesy of junior Larson, a 7-yard run after a deft scramble.
“I still believe we’ve got a good football team. I definitely do,” Moore said. “We are really young, and maybe we look back on this in eight weeks and realize it was a good lesson for us. But we are young, and we can’t keep playing that game, either. We’ve got to grow.”
Bands from both schools played the National Anthem prior to the game, one televised live by KCRG in Cedar Rapids, with City High coming out of the home tunnel to “Back In Black” blaring over the PA, a la the Big Hawks. This was technically City High’s home game.
Yet it was Liberty that fired the first shot, threw the first punch, however you want to phrase it.
The Lightning had a delay of game penalty before their first play of the season, a bad omen, but then went 86 yards in 10 plays to score. That score came when Beckman hit Garrett Gregoire with a 40-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline.
Liberty went for a 2-point conversion that failed.
City High went three-and-out on its first offensive possession of the season, with Liberty taking over at its own 45 after a Little Hawks punt. A 26-yard pass from Beckman to Barney took the Lightning inside the City High 10, but the Lightning went backwards after that and settled for a 37-yard Hayden Saul field goal for a 9-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Again City High went three-and-out and punted, with Liberty getting good field position again. But the Lightning couldn’t sustain anything on their third drive and punted.
City High then struck like, well, lightning, on the first play of its third possession. Larson dropped a perfect dime to Mattox down the right side. The extra point hit the upright, making it a 9-6 game.
Wyatt Williams fielded the ensuing kickoff for Liberty at his own 8, found a crease up the middle, cut down the right sideline, got a couple of big blocks and housed it 92 yards for a Lightning touchdown and a 16-6 lead. The kick return took exactly 13 seconds.
After “offsetting” fumbles, Liberty got another got a big 36-yard run off a deft cutback from Trey Gregoire, with an additional taunting penalty on City High giving the Lightning first-and-goal just inside the 10. Beckman’s run up the middle on the next play resulted in a touchdown and a 23-6 lead.
Back came City High in immediate fashion. Larson threw another perfect deep ball down the sideline, this one to Major, who ran a fly out of the backfield, an 81-yard TD bringing the Little Hawks within 23-13.
City High put together a Larson-centric march just before halftime. He threw and rushed for all 80 yards, including a 7-yard scoring scramble that made it a 23-19 game at the break, after a bad snap foiled the extra-point attempt.
AT KINNICK STADIUM
Iowa City Liberty 9 14 6 7 - 36
Iowa City High 0 19 0 0 - 19
- ICL-Garrett Gregoire 40 pass from Graham Beckman (pass failed)
- ICL-Hayden Saul 37 FG
- ICH-Akili Mattox 80 pass from Drew Larson (kick failed)
- ICL-Wyatt Williams 92 kickoff return (Saul kick)
- ICL-Graham Beckman 10 run (Saul kick)
- ICH-Ronnie Major 81 pass from Larson (Thomas Ksobiech kick)
- ICH-Larson 7 run (attempt failed)
- ICL-Christian Barney 4 pass from Beckman (kick failed)
- ICL-Ethan Neels 1 pass from Beckman (Saul kick)
First Downs: Iowa City Liberty 23, Iowa City High 15. Rushes-Yards: Iowa City Liberty 47-127, Iowa City High 25-80. Passing: Iowa City Liberty: 16-24-0-234, Iowa City High: 19-28-1-308. Punts-Avg.: Iowa City Liberty 2-29.5, Iowa City High 3-32.0 Penalties: Iowa City Liberty 9-70, Iowa City High 9-90. Fumbles-Lost: Iowa City Liberty 2-1, Iowa City High 3-2.
Rushing-Iowa City Liberty: Trey Gregoire 13-72, Graham Beckman 19-48, Owen Drapeaux 9-31, Team 6-(minus 24). Iowa City High: Ben Kueter 7-31, Drew Larson 9-22, Ronnie Major 5-19, Carsen Newton 1-13, Holdon Clay 1-2, Quinton Tran 1-(minus 2), Team 1-(minus 5).
Passing-Iowa City Liberty: Graham Beckman 16-24-0-234. Iowa City High: Drew Larson 19-25-1-308, Quinton Tran 0-3-0-0.
Receiving-Iowa City Liberty: Christian Barney 5-56, Garrett Gregoire 3-54, Dallas Miller 1-49, Amari Thigpen 2-37, Lucas Meyer 3-28, Trey Gregoire 1-9, Ethan Neels 1-1. Iowa City High: Akili Mattox 2-95, Ronnie Major 2-95, Oliver Kniss 4-50, Carsen Newton 6-42, Evan Lampe 1-10, Ben Kueter 2-7, Dax Judge 1-7.