Liberty County High School knew it was going to be a knock-down drag-out fight in Statesboro, and give it their best they did, making the Blue Devils earn every yard on their home turf. Liberty’s persistence kept the game close but the Blue Devils outlasted the Panthers to win 17-14 Friday night.
Statesboro missed out on a handful of great opportunities, but good teams persevere, which was exactly what the Blue Devils did.
Twice, the No. 3 Blue Devils (4-0) forced a turnover by the Panthers (2-2) inside the Liberty 30-yard line, but couldn’t muster any points.
Statesboro gave chase as Shadrach Thornton broke loose for 224 rushing yards and a pair of scores. Still, Statesboro found a way — much like it has all season — to come out on top.
“We certainly missed on some opportunities,” said SHS coach Steve Pennington. “In any sport, if you leave great athletes on the field and keep giving them chances, you run the risk of sour consequences.”
That risk nearly turned to reality as a fumble by Quan Daniels, who finished with 113 yards on 15 carries, set up the Panthers for a possible go-ahead scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
Powered by Thornton, Liberty drove down to the SHS 35, but a wayward snap forced the Panthers into a third-and-24 situation. The Devils held tough, forced a punt, then watched Michael Summers — he had 22 carries for 132 yards — and Daniels salt away the victory with a couple of first downs to run out the clock.
“When you’re playing the No. 3 team in the state, you can’t come out and turn the ball over,” Liberty County coach Kirk Warner said. “We stuck with it, but Statesboro is a great team and got first downs when they needed them. I told our guys that this was going to be a 15-round prize fight.”
It was a battle on both sides of the ball — for both teams.
“It’s kind of like a yo-yo,” Pennington said. “When the defense is out there, we tell them that the game is in their hands and to go make something happen. When our offense had the ball at the end, we told them the same thing.”
Last season, Statesboro started its downhill slide towards a 29-0 defeat against Liberty with a turnover on its opening possession.
The Devils fared a bit better Friday as they drove 46 yards in just eight plays. The drive eventually stalled, but Alan Rodriquez was able to put them in front with a field goal from 37 yards out to make it 3-0.
In what looked like a 180-degree turnaround from last year’s matchup, Liberty immediately found trouble. The Panthers botched a handoff on their first offensive snap and Lex Womack pounced on it for the Devils, but nothing was gained as Rodriquez misfired from 35 yards out.
After another stand by the Statesboro defense, the Devil offense got back into gear. With Daniels and Summers pounding into the line, Statesboro quickly crossed midfield before Summers broke loose on a 28 yard touchdown run late in the first half to put SHS up 10-0.
Another recovered fumble by the Devils put them in prime position to put the game out of reach on the next possession, but another missed field goal kept the margin from growing and Thornton — making the most of Liberty’s second chance — ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run on the Panthers’ next play.
“(Shadrach) is the kind of guy that can keep you in a game,” Warner said. “He was big for us tonight and we put up a fight, but give credit to Statesboro. They made enough plays to win.”
With five minutes to play in the third quarter, Summers pushed the Statesboro lead back to 17-7 with a four yard plunge, but Thornton answered again for the Panthers – this time from 59 yards out to make it 17-14 just before the fourth quarter began.
The teams exchanged possessions with no action early in the fourth before the Devils began to seize control.
With the offensive line dominating, Statesboro seemed poised to score again or run out the clock before Daniels’ fumble.
Trying to capitalize on its last chance, Liberty quickly drove across midfield before Thornton, who switched to quarterback in a wildcat formation, watched the errant snap – and the Panthers’ chance for a comeback win – slip just over his hands and bounce off down the field.
“We wanted to make them earn everything that they got, and they did,” Warner said.
“We didn’t want to give up any big 25-yard plus plays. We played the type of game that we wanted too, but our offense bogged down in the fourth quarter.”
Next week, the Panthers will host Region 2A-AAAA opponent, Richmond Hill.
“I told our guys that if we can come out and hang with the No. 3 team in the state, we have a chance to do pretty well in the sub-region games,” Warner said.
“We’re not big on moral victories, but if we can take some positives from tonight and improve, maybe we’ll see (Statesboro) again later in the season.”
Rushing: LCHS: Thornton – 24-224, 2 TDs. SHS: Summers – 22-132, 2 TDs
Passing: LCHS: Thornton – 1-1, 20 yds. SHS: N/A
Receiving: LCHS: Haggray – 2-20 SHS: N/A
Score by quarter
7:33 – Rodriquez (SHS) 37 field goal
1:49 – Summers (SHS) 28 run, Rodriquez kick
4:17 – Thornton (LCHS) 80 run, Gilyard kick
5:00 – Summers (SHS) 4 run, Rodriquez kick
1:11 – Thornton (LCHS) 59 run, Gilyard kick