Fog rolled across Donell Woods Stadium Friday night and the temperature dropped, keeping the fans chilly. But Liberty County burned up the gridiron, fighting tooth and nail to win the first round of the state playoffs. The Panthers knocked down Upson-Lee 31-22.
“I feel good, but I will tell you right now that was not a typical No. 3 seed,” Panther football coach Kirk Warner said. “We knew we were in for a battle, and they were really a No. 1 seed. … It was back and forth, but our guys rose to the occasion.”
The Panther defense forced a three-and-out for the Knights’ opening offensive drive.
With Richard LeCounte playing the wildcat, Liberty marched downfield on his throwing arm and running legs, along with the legs of Jacquez Williams and Elisha Polite.
LeCounte connected with Polite on a short pass.
Polite turned on the burners, broke away from three defenders and ran in for the Panthers’ first touchdown of the night.
Liberty’s kicker, Sidney Wilkinson kicked her first point-after attempt, which easily cleared the crossbar.
Upson-Lee soon caught a break when the Panthers fumbled the ball on their next offensive drive, and the Knights took over at the Panthers’ 36.
Knights Quay Battle and Quay Reviere pounded the ball downfield and quarterback Kalen Puckett completed a few screen passes and ran for positive yardage. The Knights trampled their way to the 2, then coughed up the ball and the Panthers recovered.
Pinned deep, however, the Panthers were forced to punt.
The Knights finally broke the plane in the second quarter when Puckett ran for a big gain for a first-and-goal. The Knights scored on the next play, faked the extra-point kick and converted for two. That gave them an 8-7 lead.
Back on offense, the Panthers made a quick statement, and on third and short, LeCounte rushed downfield behind a block by Williams for a touchdown. The Panthers went for two points and regained the lead, 15-8.
The Knights used Puckett and Battle to pound the ball down the center and converted on a fourth-and-short. They attempted to toss the ball downfield, but Panther Calvin Holmes stepped in front of the pass for the first of his two interceptions of the night.
The Panthers weren’t able to capitalize on the interception, though, and the Knights were soon back on offensive. This time, they penetrated the Panther defense with a 35-yard run and followed that with a screen in the center and a touchdown run.
At halftime, the game was tied at 15.
The Knights were given an opportunity at the start of the third quarter when the Panthers muffed the kick, and the Knights regained possession. The visitors had the ball at the Panther 25, and three plays later, they faced fourth down. But they plowed through from 10 yards out and scored. They took a 22-15 lead.
LeCounte ran behind Williams, who threw a block and opened the field for a 60-yard touchdown run. Wilkinson came in to kick the extra point, but the Knights jumped offside. The Panther coaching staff took the opportunity to place the offense back on the field and converted for two to take a 23-22 lead.
The Knights never stopped fighting and used every trick they could to keep the ball. Twice, they faked the fourth-down punt, instead converting for a first off a run. They used their timeouts effectively and ate up the clock when they had the slightest advantage in the score.
But by the fourth quarter, they started drawing penalties, and they missed a critical field goal in the third quarter that would have given them the lead.
Panther Cleon Hamilton came in during the fourth quarter as a relatively unknown player, but quickly claimed the spotlight. He made consecutive receptions, helping the Panthers eat up the clock and move the ball downfield. LeCounte then scored for the 7 and converted for two points for a 31-22 lead, which proved to be the final margin.
The Knights had time for comeback attempt, but the Panther defense didn’t allow it. Jeremiah Gilbert swarmed the Knights’ quarterback, and Tramel Walthour had big tackles for loss and a pass deflection. The Knights also started getting holding calls and false starts, which pushed them back. LeCounte nearly made an interception, and Sam Roberts mad a big tackle. The Knights tried to fake another punt, but this time the Panthers knew it was coming and reacted accordingly.
The Knights couldn’t punch the ball through, and the clock expired.
LeCounte finished with 18 carries for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Taking the snaps in the wildcat formation, he completed 6 of 13 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. Polite made three receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown. Williams rushed for 72 yards on
14 carries. Hamilton’s two receptions netted 48 yards.
“Our offense pounded the ball and got the first downs,” Warner said. “Our defense, when we needed those big plays, they stepped up. … It was a total team effort, and I can’t say enough about my kids.”
Liberty will travel to Cartersville next week for the second round and face a team Warner said is No. 3 team in the state.
“But I told the guys that at some point, you’re going to have to beat somebody in the top five, so we may as well do it next week,” he said.
Liberty is 8-3 overall and finished 3-1 in Region 3-AAAA.
Cartersville is undefeated at 12-0 overall and finished 7-0 in Region 7-AAAA. According to maxpreps.com, the Hurricanes are 17th overall in the state, and Liberty is 75th overall.