Liberty County jumped out to a big lead against AAAA No. 8 Burke County on Friday, but had to hold on for a 26-20 Region 3-AAAA victory at Donell Woods Stadium.
Everyone was reminded early Friday of the kinship that breeds under the Friday-night lights as the Bears endured one of the toughest weeks after junior lineman Rod Williams passed away Monday after he collapsed at practice Sept. 22. Five minutes before kickoff, both teams gathered in the end zone to remember Williams and his family.
Liberty running back Jaquez Williams, who had injury issues after the Panthers’ loss to Benedictine, scored twice for the Panthers, including a run straight up the middle for Liberty’s first touchdown.
Later in the first quarter, receiver Eli Polite hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass from Jaalon Frasier.
Leading 20-0, the Panthers looked like they could cruise straight on through the fourth quarter. The Bears didn’t get a first down until midway through the second quarter. Defensively, Liberty has shown improvement as players return to the lineup. According to Panther defensive coordinator Tony Glazer, Liberty’s hard-hitting defensive unit forced three fumbles.
Burke County scored before half to make it 20-6 at the break.
Both teams spent most of the third quarter in a stalemate, but again Liberty showed defensive prowess. The Bears were going for it on fourth down when Richard LeCounte came streaking out of the secondary and hit the Burke County quarterback, sacking him for a loss. As the health of the Panthers defense improves, Glazer has had an opportunity to install a new blitz system that resulted in two sacks and one quarterback hurry.
The Bears found the end zone again in the fourth quarter on fourth down from the 35-yard line. Panther turnovers let the Bears stay around, but Liberty was resilient enough to add another touchdown to push its lead to 26-12.
Burke put another touchdown and a two-point conversion attempt on the board, making it look like the Bears had the game in reach.
Burke forced a punt to get the ball back one last time and marched the ball downfield, getting inside the Panthers 10. On fourth down, Burke County launched a pass that fell incomplete, giving the Panthers their fifth win at home this season and a perfect record in Region 3-AAAA.
The victory gives the Panthers (5-2 overall, 2-0 in region) their greatest opportunity to win a region championship when they host Thomson next Friday night.
Thomson (5-1), which was considered the odds-on favorite to win the region, lost to Burke County 26-20 last week. Thomson beat Clarkston 56-7 on Friday.