Panthers drop shootout to LBJ, 41-34

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By Scott Akanewich

If Thursday night’s home contest against LBJ was indeed to be Liberty Hill’s last real test before the playoffs roll around later this season, the Panthers nearly passed, but came up short against a talented, athletic Jaguars squad in a 41-34 loss.

According to Liberty Hill head coach Kent Walker, the visitors proved to be a bit more to handle than they had anticipated.

“Their wide receivers were better than we thought they were and we gave them a chance to run,” said Walker. “But, we made their quarterback look better than he is.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for the Jaguars to strike after the Panthers had won the coin flip and deferred to the second half – as is their custom – when LBJ signal-caller Oscar Gordon looked long and found Noah Baker in the back-right corner of the end zone in capping off a quick four-play drive to take a 7-0 lead.

The Jaguars came out in a spread offense and ran a no-huddle much of the evening, which gave Liberty Hill’s defense fits in trying to contain it, said Walker.

“They were playing uptempo and that had us playing on our heels,” he said. “Which is what we usually like to do on offense to other teams.”

As it turned out, the Panthers’ offense didn’t need to respond to LBJ’s early score, as sophomore Noah Long took it on himself by returning the ensuing kickoff 82 yards to even the score at 7-7 – a weaving jaunt which saw him sprint to the right sideline before cutting back inside toward the hash marks once his avenue along the boundary had been sealed by the coverage.

“Noah’s a threat every time he has the ball in his hands,” said Walker. “It was a big part of the game to bounce right back.”

Only 1:32 had elapsed off the game clock in a contest which looked as if it would turn into a track meet – a trend which continued when Gordon found Trent Leary with a 30-yard scoring pass only 1:15 later for a 14-7 advantage.

Following three scores inside the first three minutes, the pace did slow down from its frenetic nature, as the Panthers’ offense finally got to take the field for the first time, setting up shop on the Liberty Hill 41-yard line.

But, a pair of fumbles – both of which were recovered by the offense – helped stall the drive and after advancing to the Jaguars’ 33, the Panthers failed to convert on a 4th-and-9, turning the ball over on downs.

However, the Panthers’ defense forced LBJ to punt after a three-and-out, which would’ve given the offense the ball back with a chance to tie the score, but Liberty Hill’s Reid Bynum inexplicably tried to pick the ball up and run only to have it stripped away and recovered by the Jaguars’ coverage team.

Walker was at a loss to explain the play.

“I can’t fathom what happened there,” he said. “I’ve never seen that happen and I don’t know what he was thinking.”

The miscue gave the Jaguars the ball back on the Liberty Hill 24, from which they proceeded to score four plays later on Gordon’s third touchdown pass of the game and second to Baker for a 21-7 lead after one period of play.

But, before the clock ran out on the opening quarter, the Panthers began a drive on their own 41 which carried over into the second stanza, with Joe Pitchford scoring from three yards out at the end of a 13-play, 59-yard drive which used up 5:33 in the process and the score was 21-14.

On LBJ’s next possession, the trio of Colin Brandt, Hollis Brady and Aaron Brewer teamed up to sack Gordon for a 13-yard loss, leaving a 3rd-and-23 on the Liberty Hill 28, but the Jaguars were undaunted and on a 4-and-14 two plays later, Gordon had his fourth scoring pass of the half, with a 19-yarder to Leary and a 27-14 lead after a missed extra point.

The contest continued its up-and-down nature and with only 34 seconds remaining until halftime, the Panthers pulled one from deep in the playbook, as quarterback Will Szewczyk took the snap and handed off to Pitchford, who pulled up in the backfield and found Gavin Salinas in the end zone from 10 yards out, leaving the score at 27-21 for the visitors at the break.

The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, as Long’s 20-yard touchdown run was sandwiched between a pair of LBJ rushing scores from 15 and 2 yards, respectively, meaning the Jaguars led, 41-28, entering the fourth.
Long’s run was set up after Panthers senior linebacker Andon Thomas walloped Gordon, forcing a fumble which was recovered by Brady, immediately followed by a 32-yard Grady Flinn scamper and a pair of positive runs from nose tackle-turned-fullback Drake Torno, who saw his first action of the season in the offensive backfield.

Walker said Torno’s appearance across the line of scrimmage was no accident.

“We’ve been working him there in practice,” he said. “You’ll probably see some more of it.”

Torno finished with nine carries for 47 yards, including a 1-yard plunge which brought the home side within a single score at 41-34 with 6:06 left to play.

Which was where things really got interesting.

On the ensuing kickoff, Panthers’ senior Ethan Minix successfully executed an onside kick which was recovered by Flinn and just like that, Liberty Hill had the ball on the LBJ 49-yard line.

However, it was Flinn who fumbled the ball back to the Jaguars five plays later.

Not to be outdone, Brady forced a fumble – recovered by Devin Riley – only four plays after the previous mistake, leaving the Panthers in prime position to tie or win the game with 2:29 left and the ball on the LBJ 23-yard line.

Alas, Long lost a yard on a 4th-and-5 four plays later and the ball went back over on downs to the Jaguars.

Still, though, the drama hadn’t concluded.

LBJ was forced to punt one last time after failing to run out the clock with a first down, leaving the Panthers one last-gasp chance to score with under 10 seconds to play and no timeouts left, but Pitchford’s desperation heave as time ran out fell well short of its intended target and was intercepted, which finally put a wrap on a game which both teams tried to hand to each other in the waning moments.

Long led Liberty Hill with 99 yards on 18 carries and a pair of touchdowns – the first time in four contests he has failed to hit the century mark on the ground, while Pitchford added 51 yards on 11 attempts.

Walker said the miscues which had been improved upon in consecutive wins over Del Valle and Georgetown once again reappeared against the Jaguars.

“We just made too many mistakes,” he said. “But, that’s a reflection of me and I need to get it fixed.”

Walker expressed frustration at the fact his team was allowed to be drawn into a high-scoring affair.

“It reminded me of our last three playoff games last year and as a defensive coach that frustrates me because we’re better than that – we’re better than we were last year,” he said. “We pride ourselves on discipline here and the two games we’ve lost this year, we lacked discipline.”

However, Walker was pleased with the ability his offense showed in moving the ball effectively against a tough LBJ defense – especially compared to how the unit fared only three weeks ago in the season opener against Ellison in a game where they struggled to establish consistency in a 12-7 loss.

“I was proud of how our offense was able to move the ball tonight against the best defense we’ve played so far,” he said. “It’s like night and day and that’s because our kids have more confidence, along with some of the changes we’ve made.”

Liberty Hill (2-2) will open district play with a road game against Crockett next Friday.

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