For a few seconds on Friday night at Donell Woods Stadium, it looked as if Liberty County High School was going to pull out a last-minute win over Wayne County in a Region 2A-AAAA showdown that both teams had to win.
Instead, a 70-yard punt return by Shadrach Thornton for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown with two minutes left to play was called back because of a holding penalty. Wayne County stopped the Panthers, regained possession and held on for a 21-20 win in a game that was hard fought from the outset.
Yellow Jackets’ quarterback Greyson Lambert showed his ability on Wayne County’s first possession, scrambling in the pocket and breaking free from defenders while connecting on passes to Cody Hudson and then Malique Jackson to put the ‘Jackets up 6-0.
The extra point try was no good after a high snap allowed Liberty’s Cameron Livingston to bring down the kicker.
Offensively, the Panthers started slowly, with back-to-back false starts on their first possession forcing a punt.
The Yellow Jackets’ Jaleel Lorquett reeled off a pair of long runs on Wayne County’s next possession, but he fumbled at the goal line and Liberty County took over. But the Panthers were again forced to punt.
This time, punter Cory Lazenby sold the fake punt and Thornton got the ball and dashed downfield for a first down. Wayne County’s defense held, but the Yellow Jackets turned the ball back over to Liberty County on a fumble at the Panthers’ 39. This time, Liberty County went to work.
Thornton carried the ball three straight times to move Liberty County down to the Yellow Jackets’ 7-yard line. Sam Carter scored on the next play but the kick went wide right and the game was tied 6-6 as the second quarter began.
It didn’t stay tied long. On the ‘Jackets’ next possession, Lambert connected on a 30-yard TD pass to Lorquett and Wayne County added a two-point conversion to go up 14-6.
As intermission approached, Thornton cut his way through defenders for a 22-yard gain. Two plays later Thornton took the snap in a Wildcat formation, ran to his right and completed a pass to the 8-yard line. Thornton carried on the next two plays to score. Liberty County went for two and Thornton hit Melvin King on a short screen to tie the game 14-14 at halftime
After intermission, the defenses battled it out and Panther defenders King, Anthony Dabson, Trevon Walthour and Raekwon McMillan placed pressure on Lambert throughout the third quarter. Dabson and King each had a sack and the Yellow Jackets were kept out of the end zone in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Wayne County took a 21-14 lead on a 15-yard Lambert pass to Cody Hudson. With less than five minutes left to play, Liberty answered on a 34-yard TD run from Thornton set up by a long punt return from Tay Tay Bacon. Trailing 21-20, Liberty went for two, but Thornton was stopped short of the end zone.
That set the stage for what appeared to be a heroic comeback by Liberty County.
The Panthers forced Wayne County to punt with less than two minutes left in the game. Thornton, lined up around the 15, caught the ball on a bounce around the 30 and ran it all the way back for a TD.
The players and fans roared until the referees called holding and wiped away the potential game winning TD. Lambert then took a knee to run out the clock.