HINESVILLE -- The Liberty County Panthers ran through Marques Johnson in their 30-28 win over the Brantley County Herons in the first round of the GHSA Class 3A playoffs.
The senior running back, and cornerback made his presence known from the beginning.
On the Herons’ first drive, it seemed promising as they moved the ball downfield or short runs and screen passes.
But the Herons wanted to explore, taking a shot at the endzone from 30 yards out, testing Johnson.
Johnson would go up and nab the ball from a pass by Herons’ quarterback Kirkland Cannon before returning it 55 yards to the Herons’ 45.
He then would be the guy to finish that drive off as the Panthers pushed to the goal line and handed it off to Johnson to get the last yard to take an 8-0 lead after the two-point conversion.
“It was all about the intensity coming out here trying to get something going and get a start for the team,” Johnson said about his first half performance. “We just had to come out in the first quarter and do what we had to do – came out with the interception, drove the ball down the field to make something shake in the first quarter.”
Nothing was able to move for the Herons, ultimately giving the ball back to the Panthers.
As the Panthers were pinned to their own 4-yard line Carlos Singleton looked to Ron Golden Jr. who caught two passes to get his team out of danger on third down.
As they led 8-0 heading into the second quarter, the Panthers took a 16-0 after getting another rushing touchdown by Johnson from the goal line.
Both teams made attempts to score in the final minutes, but it was no dice.
Singleton was picked off while looking for Caz Creasy with Herons cornerback Quinton Walker besting the receiver on a jump ball.
But the Herons couldn’t get on the board in the final two minutes of the half and the Panthers couldn’t also.
The Panthers would receive the ball coming into the second half.
This where it would begin to get interesting.
Fresh out of the third quarter, the Panthers had to make a sub at quarterback as Singleton's helmet came off in a play.
Christopher Garrett checked in and threw an interception to Brian Hiott, returning the ball to the Panthers' 21.
A few plays later, the Herons scored their first points on a five-yard rush by Kendall Wright, to bring their deficit to 16-8 with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
“When you give a team like that momentum, they’re going to fight to the very end,” Warner said. “I take my hat off to their coach. He did an outstanding job game planning. Their kids played hard. We just made more plays than they did.”
Almost six minutes went by before the next score.
But it was made by, you guessed it, Marques Johnson on a 21-yard run, switching directions mid-play to get his team a 22-8 touchdown.
“It was just an open whole and I saw it and cut back then it was green grass and I made it happen,” Johnson said. “We came out here to win the game and that’s it. Play ball. We had to keep fighting to the end and came out here and took a dub.”
Before the third quarter ended, the Herons pulled out a trick play with a reverse pass from Hiott to Quinton Walker to move them to the Panthers' 18 going into the final 12 minutes.
The Herons eventually reached the goal line before causing the Panthers to fall just short on a stand on fourth down as Cannon quarterback sneaked for a touchdown to make the score 22-15 with 8:58 left.
Johnson wanted to put the game away once and for all.
He caught ghost on the first play of the drive, jetting for an 80-yard touchdown to take a 30-15 lead with 8:44 to go.
“We knew he could probably get on the edge with them and use his speed a little bit,” Panthers head coach Kirk Warner said about his running back. “We told him in the first half, but everybody wanted to try to cutback in the first half, but we finally got a big play out of him in the second half.”
The Herons got possession after Johnson's score and didn't waste time responding, putting together a quick 44 second drive that was finished off with Cannon connecting with Hiott for a 10-yard touchdown pass.
5 minutes and some change remained.
The Herons had time to tie the ball game up.
But Mason Diaz ruined those plans, forcing and recovering a Cannon fumble to get the Panthers the ball to eat up the time.
Eventually, the Panthers had to punt, giving the Herons the ball back with 2:26 left.
The drove and drove and drove and eventually encountered a 'do or die' situation.
With five seconds left, the Herons were at the Panthers' 20.
They drew up a play to get Hiott the ball as he got behind Caz Creasy and completed another pass from Cannon.
But the Herons couldn't get the conversion that would tie the game.
“It was disappointed on the touchdown drive,” Warner said. “We told the guys to back up and put their feet on the goal line and it didn’t happen. They got a guy behind us, and he made a heck of a catch. But our defense made one more play than they did on the two-point conversion.”
The Panthers will now host Carver Panthers (Atlanta) in the second round of the 3A playoffs.
“We got a lot of improvement to do,” Warner said going into the next round. “We made too many mistakes and made it much closer than what it should’ve been. I know Carver’s athletic, and they got about four or five D1 athletes. So, I know we can’t play like we did this week and think we’re going to be in the game next week. We just got to look at the film and work on what we did wrong and just try to rectify those mistakes.”
They hold a 9-2 record and drubbed North Hal 56-17 in the first round.