Penalties cost Panthers in loss to Burnet
By Scott Akanewich
Seventeen and 173.
Two numbers which stood out more than any others on the stat sheet for Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker after his team’s 35-31 home defeat to rivals Burnet at Panther Stadium on Friday.
“I don’t know too many football teams in America who can win with 17 penalties,” said Walker. “I’ve never had the officials take a game out of our players’ hands like tonight.”
Especially galling for the Panthers’ sideline boss was a sequence which took place on Liberty Hill’s final possession of the game when the offense took over at their own 22-yard line, trailing 35-31 with just under three minutes to play.
After the Bulldogs had gone ahead for what turned out to be the final time, Justin Coffey returned the ensuing kickoff into Burnet territory only for a holding call to nullify what would have been 1st-and-10 at the Bulldogs’ 40.
Instead, they were pushed back to their own 22 – a swing of 38 yards – where the Panthers’ offense took over with one last chance to win the game – and there was no doubt in Walker’s mind they were going to do exactly that, he said.
“I was sure we were going to score and win that game,” said Walker. “What happened was absolutely terrible – Burnet didn’t beat us.”
After Liberty Hill had already picked up a pair of first-downs on the drive, the Panthers were penalized on three of four plays – holding on consecutive plays, then a false start two plays later.
Eventually, they found themselves staring at a 4th-and-21 from their own 38 with 50.3 seconds left after what had begun as a promising drive, only for quarterback Jacob Cearley to be sacked by a host of Bulldogs players who collapsed the pocket on a pass attempt, which turned the ball over on downs.
All the visitors needed to do after that was kneel down in the victory formation and run out the clock.
Walker was incredulous about what he witnessed, he said.
“We’ve been beaten by some bad teams, but I’ve never experienced something like this,” said Walker. “It’s not fair for our kids.”
In all, the Panthers were backed up for a total of 173 yards on 17 penalties, a total which shocked the Liberty Hill head coach, especially after he reviewed the video after the game.
“We watch it and there’s nothing there,” he said. “I don’t know how you can call holding on a kickoff when the game is one the line – it’s becoming a circus. We never had a chance to come back.”
In a game decided by only three points, it was especially frustrating for Walker’s players hands to be tied, he said.
“We didn’t play perfect, but that was absolutely ridiculous,” said Walker. “I don’t know what to do about it. We send film to the chapter (of officials) in Austin and we never hear back, so I might have to go down in person.”
According to Walker, it’s something which has been happening all season.
“We’re averaging 15 penalties a game,” said Walker. “Going a whole season like this is crazy – it’s extremely frustrating.”
The Panthers did in fact clean up the physical side of the game which has plagued them all season by not committing a single turnover in the game and the offense looked like its old self, racking up 447 yards on the ground.
But, all that was little consolation to Walker in the aftermath.
“If we hold three times, they’re going to hold three times,” he said. “There were some times when they absolutely tackled us and didn’t get called.”
As for the rest of the game, Cearley’s presence under center marked the senior’s first action on offense since he was injured in the Panther’s home-opener against Hutto on Sept. 6 and immediately ran the offense smoothly, which was the reason for the switch, said Walker.
“I think Jacob gives us more confidence offensively,” he said. “It wasn’t anything Charlie (Calabretta) was doing bad, but Jacob’s been there as our leader in the past.”
However, before Cearley and the Liberty Hill offense could get their hands on the ball, he found himself at his safety position on defense after the Bulldogs received the opening kickoff and drove 74 yard on 14 plays ending with an 18-yard touchdown pass from junior signal-caller Matthew Tippie to Jaxson Denton for a 7-0 lead.
But, the Panthers answered right back when they finally did get the ball for the first time on the evening.
Despite four penalties on the Panthers’ opening drive, a steady combination of bruising inside running by Blake Simpson and slashing outside gains by Trey Seward, Liberty Hill evened the score on Simpson’s 14-yard run with 2:49 left in the first on a drive which covered 72 yards on seven plays.
But, the Bulldogs bounced right back with another scoring drive of their own, culminating with a 25-yard scoring pass from Tippie to Brayden McPherson to restore a seven-point advantage at 14-7 early in the second.
Tippee then drove Burnet 80 yards on 11 plays before rumbling in himself from two yards out and it looked as if the Bulldogs would take a two-touchdown lead in the halftime locker room.
But, Seward had other ideas.
After the Panthers got the ball back with only 36 seconds left in the half, Seward burst right up the middle of the Burnet defense for a 58-yard scoring run with no time left on the clock, reducing the home side’s deficit to 21-14.
Seward wasn’t done there, as he carried the positive momentum gained over into the second half, scoring on a 35-yard sprint down the right sideline on the Panthers’ opening possession of the third and just like that, it was 21-21 with 9:54 left in the quarter.
On the next Liberty Hill drive, Mason Shipley booted a 43-yard field goal, making it 17 unanswered points for the Panthers and a 24-21 lead.
After Burnet regained the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter on a 15-yard strike from Tippee to McPherson, it was Simpson who answered with a 21-yard run to make it 31-28 in favor of Liberty Hill.
However, on Burnet’s next drive, an effective mix of run and pass plays resulted in a two-yard scoring run by Blake Burkhalter, which provided the winning points.
Seward led the Panthers with 240 yards on 16 carries and a pair of touchdowns, while Simpson ran 18 times for 141 yards and two scores and Eric De La Cruz added another 59 yards on seven carries.
Burnet’s offense was fueled by Tippie, who threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns, while Marcus Escamilla rushed 20 times for 97 yards, as Denton hauled in nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Liberty Hill outgained Burnet 447-317, but it wasn’t enough for the Panthers to win their first home game of the season.
Liberty Hill (2-5, 0-3) must now win its final two games — home against Taylor next week and at Canyon Lake on Nov. 8 — for its playoff hopes to be alive.
But in the wake of the latest defeat in what is now a three-game losing streak, Walker was still fuming about the lack of quality the officials showed.
“We’re all human – we make mistakes,” he said. “But, three holding penalties on one drive – it’s laughable. Either be consistently good or bad for both sides. I feel like the officials cost us the game.”