It took a mere three minutes for the Liberty County Panthers (1-1) to set the tone and earn their first of four touchdowns Friday night at Donell Woods Stadium as they rolled to a 28-0 victory against the visiting McIntosh County Academy Buccaneers (0-2). It was their second victory against the Bucs in nine matchups.
In those same three minutes, senior running back Shadrach Thornton had a 45-yard touchdown run and a 50-yard kick return on his way to 201 yards on 17 carries for the evening.
When the Buccaneers honed in on Thornton, Panthers quarterback Jerome “JJ” Grant took advantage and rushed for 130 yards on seven carries.
“He is growing up,” Panthers coach Kirk Warner said of Grant. “He did well on some of the quick short passes … as far as reading the option, when you have a back like Shadrach someone else is going to have to step up. They can’t guard more than two guys in the spread option so (Grant) has to be the one that makes them pay when they flow to Shadrach, and he did that tonight.”
And the Liberty County defense made the opposing quarterback pay. Melvin King and Raekwon McMillan combined for 18 tackles. King also blocked a pass. Anthony Dabson was in on several tackles and earned 2.5 sacks.
Dabson’s first big hit came on the opening kick return, pinning the Bucs in their own territory to start their first offensive drive. McMillan, King and Taishon Walls immediately followed suit, pressuring the quarterback and making the tackles to force a punt.
The Panthers had a short field, starting at their own 45-yard line. After an incomplete pass, Thornton found daylight and ran for a 45-yard touchdown to give Liberty County a 7-0 lead.
McMillan and King kept the pressure on and Tay Tay Bacon covered the secondary, forcing the Bucs to punt again. A deep kick pinned the Panthers back at their own 19, but that was short lived when Thornton broke open on a 50-yard run.
The Panthers were held to fourth-and-short and Grant found a gap for the first down, but the home team wasn’t able to capitalize and turned the ball over on downs to MCA at their 26-yard line.
The Bucs moved the ball to the Panthers’ 28 as the second quarter got under way. But the MCA quarterback was caught off guard when the ball was snapped early, and he got hit in the facemask. Dabson recovered the ball.
Grant had a huge gain when he faked to Thornton and the Bucs defenders bit. Grant moved the ball to the 46. Despite their efforts, the Panthers were forced to punt.
The defense went back to work and forced the Bucs into a third-and-15 situation. McMillan came up with another big tackle and then grabbed the ball on a short MCA punt.
Thornton rushed for 16 yards and the Panthers set up the flea-flicker, where Thornton hit Alton Sapp in stride for a touchdown pass to go up, 14-0.
MCA tried to get points on the board before halftime. On fourth down, the Bucs broke open the run and made it to the 1-yard line before Panther Rodney Goffney pushed the runner out of bounds.
MCA was pushed back on a false-start penalty, King sacked the quarterback, Trevon Walthour deflected a pass and the Panthers blocked the field goal to close the half.
In the third quarter, Grant faked the ball to Thornton and ran the ball 50 yards, which set up a Thornton touchdown run to give Liberty a 21-0 advantage.
The defense continued to do the rest. Goffney had a blocked punt and an interception, Walls had three tackles for losses, Greg Roman deflected a pass and Jhonte James and King batted down passes.
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers blocked a punt, which set up their final touchdown, a 5-yard run by Andre Haggray.
“They are still a tough bunch,” Warner said of MCA. “They had a lot of changes with their coaching staff, and I know the type of growing pains they are going through right now. But he has some good athletes and they fought hard. They had a lot of kids playing both ways and we just wore them out down the stretch, but they are going to be good.”
Warner said he was pleased with the coverage of his defensive secondary.
“I have to tip my hat to the secondary,” he said. “(MCA) got some balls off downfield when we didn’t get the rush in quite as good as we wanted to, and I thought we defended the pass well. We are growing as a team, and I think we will be fine once we get into region play.”
Offensively, the Panthers found success with the passing game. Grant was 2 of 4 for 30 yards. Thornton was 2 of 3 for 41 yards and a touchdown. Sapp had two receptions for 48 yards. The Panthers had 447 total yards, 11 first downs and drew three offensive penalties.