SPRINGFIELD — The Liberty County Panthers showed flashes of their big-play capability, but they also made too many mistakes to erase Friday night.
The Panthers’ attempt at a dramatic comeback in the final seconds died on a bad third-down snap and a clock-killing spike with 0.3 second left, allowing the Effingham County Rebels to escape with a 20-14 win in the football season opener for both teams.
“It hurts,” Panthers head coach Kirk Warner admitted. “It hurts.”
Effingham had fourth-and-1 at the Liberty 43 with 1 minute, 56 seconds to play in the game. Phillip Brown tried to get the first down and allow the Rebels to run out the clock, but Jeremiah Gilbert upended the Effingham quarterback for a 1-yard loss.
Richard LeCounte made a leaping catch of a Jaalon Frazier pass for a 37-yard gain to the Rebels’ 11-yard line. But out of timeouts and facing third-and-5 at the Rebels 6, a hurried snap sailed past Frazier. He recovered at the 21, but the clock continued to melt away as the referees set the ball in play, and Frazier tried to spike the ball to stop the clock.
“Richard made a heckuva play,” Warner said. “We just ran out of time. We had some offensive linemen in there who were inexperienced. We couldn’t quite run the hurry-up offense like we should have. We had poor clock management toward the end.
“But my guys fought,” he continued. “Effingham fought. It was a hard-fought game. They were physical. They never quit. They just made one more offensive play than we did.”
The Panthers had two first-half scoring chances snuffed out. Rashaud Roper picked off LeCounte’s pass to Charell Roberts in the end zone midway through the second quarter, and Rebels linebacker Matthew Bowen snared Frazier’s pass with 15 seconds left in the half.
Effingham took a 7-0 lead when Jake Dangerfield hauled in Brown’s 24-yard TD pass with 1:54 to go in the half.
The two teams combined for 12 first-half penalties, including a holding call on Liberty that negated Jacquez Williams’ 51-yard touchdown burst.
“Penalties killed us in the first half,” Warner said. “But those are things we can work on and rectify. The effort was there tonight, and we can build on that.”
The Panthers’ defense held on two separate Effingham drives inside the Liberty 10 early in the third quarter. The Rebels, however, took a 14-0 lead when Dusty Baker fell on a blocked punt in the end zone with 2:47 to go in the third quarter.
Baker then ran down and fell on top of the ensuing squib kick, putting the Rebels at the Liberty 30. The Panthers thwarted the Rebels again, blocking Mackenzie Stewart’s 18-yard field goal try.
After managing just 21 yards on three three-and-outs to start the second half, the Panthers offense finally came through in the fourth.
Frazier found Roberts on a deep post, and he outran the Rebels secondary for a 56-yard touchdown strike. Alec Sutton’s point-after cut the gap to 14-7 with 6:34 left.
Liberty botched the following onside-kick attempt, and Brown turned that into a 6-yard TD run with 5:13 to go.
“Once she missed the extra point, I thought if we got a couple of scores, we had a chance to win it,” Warner said, noting Stewart’s blocked extra-point attempt. “And we did.”
On third-and-10 from their own 39, the Panthers struck again. LeCounte hit Williams across the middle, and the senior spun away from the Effingham defenders, outracing them for a 61-yard touchdown. Sutton’s PAT brought the Panthers within 20-14 with 4:39 to go.
Despite the big plays that brought them within a whisker of upending Effingham, the Panthers had three turnovers, committed nine penalties, had two punts cover just 36 yards total and had another blocked that resulted in a score.
“Field position killed us,” Warner lamented. “Special teams killed us. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, but even with all of that, we only lose by six. We’re going to be fine.”
The Panthers were held to 59 yards rushing on 24 attempts, but LeCounte and Frazier combined to go 12-of-27 passing for 235 yards. Williams had 109 yards on six catches, and LeCounte also had an interception.
“Our kids played hard,” Rebels coach Buddy Holder said. “They fought. They competed. We were physical all night long, which is what we try to impart on our kids. When you play that way, a lot of times you create situations where mistakes are made by the other team. Those things kind of went our way tonight.”
Effingham visits Bluffton (S.C.) and Liberty plays in-county rival Bradwell Institute next.