RENO — Liberty football coach Rich Muraco figured the team that had the ball last in the Patriots’ Division I semifinal Saturday probably would win.
So facing fourth-and-2 at his 38-yard line with a three-point lead over Reed and 1:32 left, Muraco chose not to punt.
His gamble backfired, as Liberty’s Ethan Tuilagi was stopped for no gain, and Reed capitalized with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Chris Denn to Trae Wells with 34 seconds left to lift the Raiders to a 35-31 win.
Reed (12-1) will face Bishop Gorman (12-2) for the state championship at 1:05 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“It’s a back-and-forth game, and to be honest with you, it’s one of those things where, do I have more confidence in the offense at that time getting 2 yards or the defense stopping them after a punt for 50,” Muraco said. “They only needed to get in field-goal range, so I gambled and put it on the offense’s shoulders, and to Reed’s credit, they stepped up and stuffed us.”
Muraco’s decision didn’t surprise Reed coach Ernie Howren.
“I understand the decision to do it, I can tell you that,” Howren said. “They had gotten every third- and fourth-and-short up to that point.”
Liberty’s Ethan Dedeaux nearly made it a moot point, making a diving attempt at an interception with 40 seconds remaining. However, the officials conferred and ruled the ball had hit the ground, and Reed scored on the next play. Television replays appeared to show Dedeaux’s hands under the ball.
“That’s an awful call,” Muraco said. “It was definitely an interception; I saw it. His arms were under it. They didn’t see the ball hit the ground, or else that ref would have come running in with his hands waving and pointing to the ground. It’s awful that they let a mechanical refereeing error ultimately cost the game.”
The Patriots still had an opportunity to stop the Raiders, but on third-and-10 from the 25, Wells beat double coverage, and Denn floated the ball to the back of the end zone, where Wells got one foot down in bounds.
“We still had to stop Reed, and they were able to score, so I’m not going to blame it 100 percent on that, but if we get that interception, the game is over,” Muraco said.
Liberty had taken a 31-28 lead with 4:09 left on a 1-yard run by Tuilagi, after a great catch by Deseon McQuaig to haul in a 27-yard pass from Tyler Newman, wrestling the ball from a Reed defender at the 1-yard line.
That erased Reed’s 28-24 edge, which the Raiders gained on Jordan DeLeon’s third rushing touchdown with 8:05 left.
The lead changed hands five times in the second half, after Reed went into halftime with a 14-10 lead, before the game turned into the shootout in the fourth quarter that Muraco had expected all along.
“I’m actually kind of surprised it’s only 35-31,” Muraco said. “I thought it would be high 40s.”
Reed ran just eight plays in the first quarter to Liberty’s 28 but led 7-0 because of a two-play, 80-yard drive.
Alofania Tevaseu tied the score at 7 with a 1-yard run, but the Raiders again struck in two plays, with Denn hitting Wells for a 31-yard score with 10:52 left in the second quarter.