Liberty County again claimed the Commissioners Cup, downing Bradwell Institute 53-13 at Hokey Jackson Stadium Friday to open the 2016 football season.
Panther safety and five-star recruit Richard LeCounte showed why he is a highly coveted prospect. He scored four touchdowns, including two back-to-back kick returns that were 60 plus yards each.
Bradwell opened with a three-and-out and a short punt. That gave Liberty a short field and quick work. Senior quarterback Jaalon Frazier hit LeCounte with a short pass. The University of Georgia commit dodged a tackle and ran roughly 15 yards to the end zone.
Alec Sutton’s point after kick parted the uprights.
Bradwell took the kick return and methodically made it down to the Panthers’ 20 yard line, but then faced fourth and 20.
The Tigers went for it. Quarterback Quin McMassey launched the ball into the far corner of the end zone and receiver John Spaulding leapt for the reception. But it skimmed the top of his glove, but was beyond his reach.
The first quarter drew to a close, the Panthers up 7-0.
In the second quarter, an untimely error killed another Tiger drive. Panther linebacker Etienne Chatman stepped in front of a pass, made the pick and returned it for 15 yards before being tackled at midfield.
LeCounte lined up for the wildcat play and netted positive yards for a first down. But the Tigers’ staunch defense forced the punt.
Panther Elisha Polite faked the punt and completed a 10-yard pass to Tracy White.
White roared down the sideline from the 30 and broke a tackle before running into the end zone. Liberty missed the PAT, but led 13-0.
On the ensuing offensive possession, Tiger running back Corth Nelson started plugging away at the yards. The Panthers drew an unsportsmanlike call and the Tigers were inside Liberty’s 30.
McMassey connected with Quindarius Watkins on a quick screen pass. Watkins bolted to the end zone, but the home team fans’ celebration was cut short. The officials flagged the Tigers for illegal formation negating the touchdown. On fourth and 15, the Tigers went for it. This time the touchdown counted as McMassey found a wide-open Imari Hurte at the 5 yard line. Hurte made the catch, evaded atackler and scored.
The extra point kick by Delano Blue was good.
Liberty wasted no time answering. The Tigers kicked the ball right to LeCounte, who bolted and swerved his way to a 60-plus yard touchdown return. The Panthers went for the two-point conversion and scored, going up 21-7.
After a three-and-out the Tigers were forced to punt and again the ball landed in LeCounte’s hand. As if on instant replay, the senior bolted and found an open seam along the sidelines that took him 65-plus yards into the end zone.
“You know number 4, LeCounte, he is a five-star for a reason,” Tiger coach Greg Hill said after the game.
The Tigers made big plays, but also too many penalties. In one instance, McMassey broke open for a 30-yard gain, getting Bradwell near the Panthers’ end zone, but it was called back. On the next snap the Tigers fumbled and the Panthers recovered.
That set up the Panthers next touchdown, a 15 yard touchdown pass from Frazier to Elisha Polite.
The Panthers were up 33-7 and the clock was ticking toward half-time. That’s when the Tigers showed they had a few tricks of their own.
The Tiger offense lined up, the clock ticked down to one second and the ball was snapped. McMassey took a small step back and put his head down, but he never took a knee to stop the action. The Panther defense, thinking the first half was over, began to walk to the locker room. McMassey bolted 80 yards downfield for the touchdown and officials declared it valid since play had not been whistled out.
The Tigers missed the PAT, but the touchdown sparked enthusiasm from the players and home fans.
The Panthers opened the third quarter with Frazier going 2 for 2 to Jaleel Gilbert and LeCounte. Suddenly Liberty had a first and goal. Frazier dumped a four-yard pass to LeCounte and Liberty was up 39-13.
“I was hoping we would have some momentum going in (the third) since we scored right before the half,” Hill said. “I thought we would come out, get a stop and execute. But we gave up a big play and they went down and scored and it just made it tough.”
Bradwell fought hard, but was unable to answer the Panther offense.
The Tiger offense did show the finesse and refinement visible in last week’s preseason win over Johnson. Nelson proved solid again for the Tigers’ running game. There also added depth in the run with Spaulding, Hurte and Christian Evans.
The Tiger defense came up just short in stuffing the Panthers’ drive.
On Liberty’s next offensive drive, Polite had two back-to-back receptions and the Panthers were soon back in the Tigers’ red zone. Frazier had the offense on the three yard line. He took the snap and walked it in.
The Tigers trailed 46-13 as the fourth quarter started.
Bradwell brought in fresh legs with sophomore Ke’Ron Mason. He managed to gain yards on several plays while Nelson got some rest.
With Mason’s help, the Tigers were at the Panthers’ 26 yard line. But a 15 yard face mask pushed Bradwell back. A punt soon followed.
Liberty went back to work as time ticked toward the close.
Frazier took the snap and ran 25 yards to the Tigers’ 10. Frazier then completed a pass to Russell Dandy for their final TD.
“My hats goes off to Liberty. They played a dang well game,” Hill said. “This game will not make or break us. … We have to get ready for the next one and keep getting better. Southeast Bulloch is what we will focus on. … We need to play hard and get rid of the mistakes and then hopefully the outcome is different.”
Panther head coach Kirk Warner said the win felt good, and praised the Tigers’ effort.
“Both teams battled hard tonight,” he said. “They are a great team — a much better team than they were last year and I tip my hat to coach Hill. He has done an outstanding job and we will have our work cut out for us next year.”