What started as a slow first quarter morphed into a big second half as Liberty County High School shut down Johnson in a 22-0 win Friday night at Donell Woods Stadium.
It was the first game between the Panthers and Atomsmashers and through much of the first quarter it was an exchange of drives.
Liberty got on the board early in the second quarter on a drive that started after a short punt gave the Panthers the ball at Johnson’s 28 with 1:47 left to go in the first quarter.
Panther running back Jordan Moody ran for 8 yards and Andre Haggray picked up 10 more when the buzzer sounded to end the quarter. Raekwon McMillan ran in from 10 yards out for the score on the first play of the second quarter and Joaquin Lemapu kicked the extra point to give Liberty a 7-0 lead.
That was the only touchdown of the first half.
“It was very pretty slow early on but we started getting things rolling in the second half,” Panthers coach Kirk Warner said. “We have to be more consistent.”
But the Atomsmashers were having their own problems. Johnson was hit with back-to-back false start penalties backed them up 10 yards on a drive that could have started near mid-field. The Atomsmashers dropped several catchable balls, including one in the endzone near the end of the half, and quarterback Shyheim Roberts was tackled twice for big losses on fourth down.
“The defense played lights out and we defended the pass a lot better than we have in the past,” Warner said, adding the he was pleased about having a better balance of offensive and defensive minutes on the field. “If we keep our defense fresh, they can do some great things.”
The Panthers went back to work midway through the third quarter when Moody found a seam and ran the ball for a big gain to set up quarterback JJ Grant at the 15-yard line. Two plays later, Grant threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Caldwell-Fabergas and the Panthers were up 14-0.
Later in the third quarter, Panther DJ Bratcher scooped up a short punt on a bounce and ran for 8 yards to Johnson’s 34-yard line. Grant launched another pass to Fabergas, who was tackled at the 2. Grant ran the ball in on the next play. The snap for the extra point was bobbled, but Liberty led 20-0.
In the fourth, a good punt by Corey Lazenby pinned the Atomsmasher deep in their own territory. The Atomsmashers went backward to their own 3-yard line on a combination of a tackle for a loss and a penalty, and Liberty recorded a safety to up the Pantherss lead to 22-0.
Johnson did have one last drive to avoid the shutout and threw a Hail Mary as the buzzer sounded but it was incomplete. Warner said he was pleased that Fabergas stepped up his game as a receiver in addition to his defensive duties. Last week, the Panthers lost their main wide receiver to an injury.
“We have been hit by the injury bug,” Warner said. “We lost Alton Sapp for the season with an ACL so it kind of limited our passing game a little bit. We are going to need Joey Irizarry and the other guys to step it up now. We are going to have to pass the ball to be successful.”
Stats were not available at press time, but McMillan, Fabergas, Lazenby and Taison Walls had big plays for the defense. McMillan gave the crowd a scare on a carry when he was hit just short of the goal line. He grabbed his leg and left the game.
“I wanted to make sure he was alright, but he said he was just cramped up a little bit,” Warner said. McMillan did return to the game in spurts and appeared fine.
The Panthers are 2-1 and will host Cross Creek on Friday. Johnson falls to 0-3.