Panthers pound Bulldogs, 23-15

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By BOB VARMETTE

AUSTIN – The Liberty Hill Panthers are Region IV-4A Division I champions. And they beat the Burnet Bulldogs.

Liberty Hill fans can determine which accomplishment is more important. But the Panthers are headed to the state semifinals for the first time since 2008 after their 23-15 win over the Bulldogs Friday night at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex.

And though the offense produced only 23 points, the Panthers ability to keep the ball away from the potentially potent offense of the Bulldogs was critical.

“That was one of the biggest keys we had,” Liberty Hill coach Jerry Vance said. “We had to keep them off of the field, and I thought our offense did a great job of that, getting first downs.”

Liberty Hill advances to meet the winner of the Region III-4A Division championship game between Navasota and Henderson at time, date and site to be determined.

The Panthers (12-2) ground out 20 first downs and 353 yards. Junior fullback Jon Shannon led Liberty Hill with 36 carries for 155 yards, although he again failed to find the end zone for the second week in a row.

Instead, in its annual meeting with long-time rival Burnet (11-3), Liberty Hill went to the air, and for the second week in a row, got its winning touchdown with a pass.

Leading just 16-7 in the fourth quarter, and Panthers lined up for a 35-yard field goal by Lucas Rizzotto. But Vance opted for something a little different, having holder Christian Anderson toss a flip pass to Jason Reeves, who went 18 yards against the stunned Bulldogs to give the Panthers a 23-7 lead with 4:12 in the fourth quarter, and all the points they needed.

“We’ve had that one in our pocket for the entire season and we decided to break it out,” Anderson said. “It’s a pretty awesome feeling to actually pass for once in my life. … At first, I didn’t know what to think and we just went out and did it and it worked and got the six points. Basically, it sealed the deal.”

A bad snap on the Bulldogs’ ensuing drive thwarted any attempt at tying the game and sending the contest to overtime. While Burnet had its issues with ball security, turning the ball over twice, the Bulldogs also found their explosive offense mostly extinguished by the Panther defense.

Junior quarterback Austin Moore threw for 276 yards and a score, and ran for another. But the Bulldogs generated hardly any yards on the ground to balance their spread passing attack, picking up just 35 yards on 17 carries.

The Panthers were relentless, even if they weren’t producing points. They did the next best thing – they kept the Bulldogs from producing points.

“That’s their blueprint for success and it’s worked a great deal for them over the past 15 years,” Burnet coach Kurt Jones said. “We couldn’t get our offense rolling and they limited our possessions. And when we did get the ball we really couldn’t do anything with it.”

The first two quarters mirrored the game – or set the tone for it. It was a defensive first-half – if you like bend-but-don’t-break defense. Though each defense only surrendered a touchdown, both Burnett and Liberty Hill escaped at least one threat each.

In the second quarter, the Panthers marched 48 yards in 15 plays from their own 46 and ate up 6 minutes, 30 seconds of clock. But Liberty Hill turned the ball over on downs with 1:05 in the first half after reaching the Burnet 6.

That left the Bulldogs and quarterback Austin Moore plenty of time for their unfulfilled drive – 52 yards in five plays that got them to the Panthers 33. But a holding penalty and an incomplete pass left the Bulldogs with one shot at the end zone from the Liberty Hill 43 with 1 second in the half, and Austin Thrash ended the threat with an interception five yards shy of the end zone.

“We knew they had a really good passing offense, so we practiced covering those long balls,” junior linebacker Colton Cunningham said. “If our offense didn’t hold them, didn’t keep the ball that long, then they would’ve had a lot more opportunities to score.”

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