An inspired defensive effort was not enough for the shorthanded Salina Liberty on Sunday night at the end of their 13-hour road trip to Billings, Montana.
The Liberty managed just one second-half touchdown against an equally stout Billings defense as they fell from the ranks of the Champions Indoor Football undefeated with a 42-34 loss to the expansion Outlaws at First Interstate Arena.
Billings took the lead for good on Charles McCullum's 6-yard touchdown pass to Tyron Laughinghouse with 3 minutes, 17 seconds left, and then sealed the victory on Jeff Luc's 45-yard interception return at the 1:58 mark. The Liberty finally got in the end zone with 58 seconds to go, but it was not enough.
"It was a tough offensive (game) for us in the second half, absolutely," said Liberty offensive coordinator George Martinez, who served as acting head coach in the absence of Heron O'Neal. "Give credit where credit is due. They made some adjustments at halftime and we didn't make as many good adjustments.
"Our defense played a hell of a game the second half. It was one of the best defensive performances I've seen in indoor football ever, but so was theirs."
With the victory, their first ever in the CIF, the Outlaws evened their record at 1-1, while the Liberty fell to 2-1 in the league and 3-1 overall.
The Liberty were without head coach O'Neal, plus three starters — offensive lineman Steven Fluker and defensive backs Dontra Matthews and Dewayne Autrey — who served the first of their two-game league suspensions stemming from a pregame scuffle with the Omaha Beef on March 26 in Salina.
After a back-and-forth first half that saw the Liberty tie the game at 28 on a 6-yard Tyrie Adams touchdown run and Michael Pursley point after with 15 seconds left, the defenses took control after intermission.
Billings got the ball to start the second half and had first and goal at the Salina 6-yard line, but the Liberty escaped unscathed when the drive stalled at the 3 and the Outlaws missed a 20-yard field goal try.
After the Liberty turned the ball over on downs near midfield on their first possession of the half, the defense again came up big with another stop inside their 10-yard line on an Evan Ray end zone interception.
Billings finally broke through with a 4 1/2-minute scoring drive in the fourth quarter when McCullum found Laughinghouse in the back right corner of the end zone and Luke Daly kicked the extra point for a 35-28 lead.
The Liberty got a big kickoff return from Jarrell Kelly to the Billings 6-yard line and running back Tristan Gould carried to the 2 on first down. But on the next play, Adams was hit immediately while attempting a pass and the ball landed in the hands of Luc, who ran it back 45-plus yards for the score to make it 42-28.
The Liberty got the ball back and scored on Adams' 11-yard run with less than a minute left, but Billings recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock.
With Adams under constant pressure, the Liberty struggled in the passing game all night, but had some success in the running game with backs Tre Griffin and Tristan Gould sharing most of the workload.
Griffin ran for two first-half touchdowns and Adams also carried for a pair of scores.
"They made a couple of defensive adjustments and I didn't come up with enough items to help my team counter," Martinez said. "My athletes gave me 100% the entire game.
"We could have run the ball a little bit more and that might have changed the outcome. They did stop us couple of times."
The Liberty scored on the game's opening drive on a 7-yard run by Griffin and then got a defensive stop, but on their next possession Adams took a hit near his own goal line and Dylan Donahue recovered the fumble in the end zone for the first of Billings' two defensive scores.
Adams did have a 27-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Love on the last play of the first quarter to put the Liberty up 14-7, but touchdown strikes of 24 and 28 yards from McCullum to Garry Grown put Billings in front for the first time, 21-14.
No statistics were provided by the CIF.
The Liberty returns home next Saturday for a 6:35 p.m. game against Sioux City at Tony's Pizza Events Center. The Bandits are the only remaining unbeaten team in the league at 3-0.
"This was the first time since our first game four years ago" that the Liberty offense had been shut down, Martinez said. "But we'll grow from this.
"We'll get back Monday and get to work on Sioux City and we will be better."
BILLINGS OUTLAWS 42, SALINA LIBERTY 34
S—Griffin 7 run (Pursley kick), 11:40
B—Donahue fumble recover in end zone (Daly kick), 3:00
S—Love 27 pass from Adams (Pursley kick), 0:00
B—Brown 24 pass from McCullum (Daly kick), 12:15
B—Brown 28 pass from McCullum (Daly kick), 8:14
S—Griffin 2 run (Pursley kick), 4:53
B—Laughingouse 4 pass from McCullum (Daly kick), 0:54
S—Adams 6 run (Pursley kick), 0:15
B—Laughinghouse 6 pass from McCullum (Daly kick), 3:17
B—Luc 45 interception return (Daly kick), 1:58
S—Adams 11 run (kick failed), 0:58