A Wayne County interception late in the fourth quarter killed a Liberty drive that could have potentially been the game winner Friday night at Donell Woods Stadium.
The Yellow Jackets then held on to win 14-13 in a Region 3A-AAAAA challenge.
Yellow Jackets quarterback Malique Jackson proved to be the dual threat Liberty County football coach Kirk Warner predicted, capping off Wayne County’s first offensive drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to his top receiver, Krenwick Height, to open up a 7-0 lead.
Jackson went to work a few minutes later. Facing third-and- 10 at the Jackets’ 35, he launched a 25-yard pass to Height who marched from the Panthers’ 40 to the 1 before being knocked out of bounds. Two plays later, Jackson found a receiver open in the corner of the end zone. That extended the Yellow Jackets’ lead to 14-0 in the first quarter.
Wayne County appeared to be on the way to increasing its lead in the second quarter when the Jackets moved down to the Panthers’ 22-yard line. But the Jackets’ fumbled at the 31 and Liberty County’s Antwine Davis scooped the ball up and ran it 69 yards for a TD.
Trailing 14-7, the Panthers got on the scoreboard again in the third quarter with a drive that started on their own 22. It took 10 plays for the Panthers to march to the Yellow Jackets 32. Then quarterback JJ Grant tossed a screen to Trentice Williams for a 7-yard gain and Grant converted a first down inside the Jackets 23. Grant then tossed a 19-yard pass to Jordan Waters, who was able to scramble into the end zone.
Wayne County blocked the extra point attempt, however, and Liberty County trailed 14-13.
By this time, the Panthers were able to defend against Wayne County’s passing attack
“It wasn’t so much that we made an adjustment, we just didn’t blow the coverage in the second half,” Warner said. “We blew some of the coverage in the first half and let them get wide open and we didn’t make those mistakes in the second half.”
As Wayne County went to the run, the Panthers did what they could do cause turnovers. Panther Cory Lazenby caused a fumble by laying on a running back and stripping the ball loose. He recovered it for the Panthers at midfield but the home team wasn’t able to capitalize on the turnover and was forced to punt.
The Panthers were on a scoring drive late in the fourth quarter, converting twice on fourth down. Then Grant connected with Jeremy Caldwell-Fabergas, who drew a personal foul to give the Panthers the ball at the Jackets’ 16.
With 45 seconds left to play Grant tried to stop the clock and spiked the ball, which drew an intentional grounding call pushing the Panthers back. Liberty threw a pass in an effort to give the kicker a better chance for the winning field goal, but the Jackets got the interception to hold on for the 14-13 win.
Warner said missing the extra point earlier was critical but it wasn’t because of the kicker.
“I thought about going for two right off the bat but he was kicking well and it was a bad snap and we couldn’t get the ball up so we missed the extra point,” Warner said. “I was going to give the kid another opportunity down there in the red zone but we turned the ball over.”
Warner said he was proud of his team’s ability to stay competitive against a top ranked quarterback and receiver.
“They were subbing guys in there and we didn’t have many to sub and we stayed toe to toe with them,” he said. “The kids played all 48 minutes.”
The Panthers (5-3, 0-2) will travel to South Effingham next week in a game they have to win to stay alive in the hunt for a region and state playoff berth.