THOMASVILLE — Liberty County’s offense found a chilly reception Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The host Thomasville Bulldogs held the Panthers to nine first downs and 148 yards of total offense, pulling out a hardfought 13-6 win in the Class AAA state football playoffs.
With the win, the Bulldogs — runners-up in Class AA a year ago — will host Carver-Atlanta in the third round Friday. Liberty County’s season ends at 7-5.
“We played toe-to-toe for four quarters,” said Panthers interim coach Tony Glazer. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to. We played well enough at times to win the game. We just didn’t.”
Daniel Belvin kicked a 26-yard field goal, and Lavonte Cole took Camren Hill’s screen pass for a 32-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
But the Bulldogs decided to air it out deep from their end in the waning seconds of the first half, and the Panthers’ James Summersett turned it into Liberty’s only points. He picked off Hill at the Bulldogs 40-yard line and raced past the Bulldogs for a touchdown with 9.2 seconds left in the first half.
Another Thomasville gamble in the fourth quarter, however, was much more beneficial for the Bulldogs. On fourthand-2 from the Thomasville 44, Jay Randall ran for seven yards to keep the drive going. The Bulldogs settled for a Belvin 24-yard field goal and minutes off the clock.
“They made a good play,” Glazer said. “We knew it was coming.”
The Liberty defense nearly had a game-changing play not long after the fake punt conversion. Cole had the ball knocked from his grip, and the ball skittered through a handful of Panthers defenders before Thomasville center Caden Shokat fell on it.
Cole broke off a 27yard run on the next play to the Panthers 2, but the Liberty defense stiffened.
Thomasville had three drives reach inside Liberty County’s 20-yard line, but the Panthers held them to field goal tries on each one.
Liberty’s last effort began at the Panthers own 20 with 1:12 to go, following Andrew Bennett’s 51yard punt. Carlos Singleton’s fourth down pass to Ron Golden fell incomplete with 1.9 seconds to go, securing the win for the Bulldogs.
Thomasville had 196 yards of offense and 10 first downs in the first half but came away with just 10 points.
“Our defense played their tails off,” Glazer said. “It was a hard, physical game. That’s a good football team over there.”
The Bulldogs didn’t allow the Panthers to cross midfield for the first time until the final 90 seconds of the first half. The Panthers’ deepest penetration of the night was the Bulldogs 28, and the Thomasville defense held Liberty to 4 of 16 third-down conversions.
Liberty was held to just 148 yards of total offense.
“Our defense came to play tonight,” said firstyear Bulldogs coach Jonathan DeLay.
Cole ran for 91 yards on 18 carries, and Randall had 20 carries for 99 yards for the Bulldogs, who are 9-3 and winners of eight straight.
While Carlos Singleton was only 15 of 34 passing, his punting helped keep the Bulldogs at bay. Three Thomasville possessions following a Singleton punt started inside the Bulldogs 20, and two of those were inside the 10.
For the Panthers, the season started with the heartbreaking loss of Coach Kirk Warner and ended in a tight playoff game on the road against one of the state’s most storied programs.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Glazer said. “Our best two games of the season have been the last two games we’ve played. We’ve showed at times we could be a really good football team. But the last two games, I feel we really put it together. This game could have gone either way. They played with a championship mentality and that’s all I can ask of them.”