SAVANNAH — For the first 12 minutes Friday night, it looked like the mighty Benedictine Cadets were slipping, as Liberty County took a defiant 9-0 lead to close the first quarter of play at T.A. Wright Stadium.
But the Cadets shook off the first quarter cobwebs and showed why they were last year’s Class AA state champions by controlling the tempo of the game and rolling to a 42-23 win.
Liberty’s defense came out on fire, and the Cadets committed two holding penalties, placing them inside their own 10-yard line for the punt.
Panther Calvin Holmes rushed in from the corner and blocked the punt, giving Liberty a safety.
The Panthers’ offense marched 65 yards, and the Cadets were called twice for being offside. Panther quarterback Jaalon Frazier tossed the ball to a wide open Elisha Polite. Polite made the 10-yard reception and 4-yard scamper into the end zone to widen Liberty’s lead to 9-0.
The Cadets looked to answer with a strong drive downfield only to fumble the ball at the Panthers’ 17. Liberty recovered.
Benedictine took a timeout and adjusted its game plan for the remainder of the second quarter.
The Cadets lined up and ran plays from the hurry-up offense.
“The hurry-up hurt us because we couldn’t get certain calls in, and we had to run a lot of basic vanilla defense,” Panther head coach Kirk Warner said after the loss. “They were getting up to the line and screwing up our signals. We were shorthanded on the D-line, and we knew that was going to be a problem if they started doing the hurry-up offense.”
But Warner added that his defense played a solid first half before the Cadets’ hurry-up strategy and roster depth started wearing down the Liberty players. Another thing that deflated the Panthers’ momentum was the loss of top running back Jacquez Williams.
Frazier completed a short screen pass to Williams, who darted to the far sideline. The Cadets swarmed in for the tackle, and Williams took a hard hit just below the knee from a Cadet’s helmet. That caused Williams to fumble the ball and fall to the ground writhing in pain. The Wake Forest commit was carried off the field wearing a leg splint and taken to the hospital to be examined.
The Panther coaching staff reports that Williams’ leg did not appear have any fractures and that the ligaments look good. Williams is scheduled to meet with a specialist this week for further evaluation.
The Cadets went to work on the running legs of Tyleek Collins and John Kennedy.
Kennedy scored on a 3-yard run. Minutes later, Collins rushed in from the 10-yard line to take the 14-9 lead.
Cadet quarterback Nick Iannone then hit Kennedy for a 53-yard pass completion and a touchdown. Iannone scampered in for a 1-yard touchdown run on the next series, and Benedictine was up 28-9 at the half.
The Panthers came out of intermission looking as they did in the first 12 minutes of play. Using Richard LeCounte as the quarterback, Liberty marched 70 yards. With Williams out of the game, Kevin Malwah started pushing the ball forward. He scored his first Panther touchdown from 14 yards out. But the Liberty missed the point-after try and trailed 28-15.
“He is not the running back Jacquez is, but he has his own niche and he puts his foot in the ground and gets north and south,” Warner said of Malwah. “He did a good job tonight. He did a good job in blocking, too. When we started passing the ball, he was in there getting blocks on the edge for Jaalon.”
But no one worked harder than LeCounte. The all-around athlete played as a defensive back for the entire game in addition to his offensive duties as wide receiver, quarterback, running back and blocker.
He eventually scored the final Liberty touchdown off a 23-yard completion from Frazier. He also ran in the two-point conversion.
But by then, Benedictine had added two more touchdowns off a 59-yard run by Collins and an 18-yard pass completion from Iannone to Landon Barthelmess.
Liberty is 2-2 and will host Monroe at Donell Woods Stadium this Friday at 7:30 p.m.