Panthers handle Hardin-Jefferson to earn playoff berth, 35-13
Two back-to-back fumbles late in the second quarter changed momentum and the Liberty Panthers went on to secure a 35-13 win Friday night over the Hardin-Jefferson Hawks. In doing so they secured an appearance in the state UIL football playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
The Panthers will face the Center Roughriders on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Eagle Stadium in Woodville in the first round.
Tied at 7-7 with 10:10 left in the second quarter, the Panthers mounted a 12-play drive that took them from their own 31-yard line down to the Hawks nine-yard line. Liberty fumbled the ball and Hardin-Jefferson recovered. On the following play, there was a bad exchange between the Hawks quarterback and halfback and the ball hit the turf.
Panther senior defensive back Xavier Randolph was nearby, scooped up the ball and ran it in for a Liberty score and a 14-7 advantage at the half.
“You know it’s always nice to strike first and we held a 7-7 tie through most of the first half until we turned it over,” said Jared Sloan, head coach for the Hardin-Jefferson Hawks.
“That kind of changed the tide and the momentum against us a little bit,” he said.
The Panthers came back in the second half and put together two drives that ended the Hawks hopes of an upset.
Senior Jeremiah Guillory capped a nine-play, 50-yard drive with a three-yard run up the middle for the first TD of the second half.
Buoyed by a defensive stop and a long run back on the punt by J. J. Slack to the Hardin-Jefferson 41-yard line, Liberty managed to score again, this time on a five-play drive that ended with a two-yard run up the middle by Slack.
The Hawks responded with a long drive of their own, 15 plays and 62 yards, scoring with 7:15 remaining in the game. They missed the two-point conversion when Christian Bowie fumbled the ball.
Liberty finished the scoring bonanza with a 10-play drive from the Hardin-Jefferson 36-yard line. In that drive Liberty used four different backs—Slack, Guillory, Gio Lopez, and Jordan Leday—to carry the ball and run the clock down.
On the extra point, Liberty Coach Chad Taylor trotted out a new face.
Senior Tylan Danek booted the extra point and there was a reason his teammates went bonkers on the sidelines following the kick.
“He’s there every day in practice and he’s always kicking extra points. When we work on point-after-touchdown (PAT) field goal attempts he always gets the last kick,” Taylor said.
Danek hasn’t had a lot of reps but has been faithful to practice with the team.
The coach told him if they ever had a lead where he could come in and kick the PAT, he would let him.
He got that chance Friday night and the senior split the uprights causing the Panther sideline to erupt with cheering for their friend.
“Luckily he made it,” the coach smiled. “It was a great moment for our whole team,” he said.
The Panthers had their back to wall. Had Hardin-Jefferson won by 11 points, they would have eliminated Liberty from playoff contention.
“We had to come in and take care of business,” Taylor said.
“I was glad we were able to get back and do what we do, especially in terrible conditions,” he said.
“We leaned on our offensive line to move the ball and get our three to five yards and eat up the clock,” he said.
“It was exactly how we’d thought it would go,” he said.
The Panthers have lived on the big play all year long, but with four inches of rain earlier Thursday night and a couple of under-varsity games, then rain on Friday during the day, the field conditions were horrendous.
“We’re okay moving the chains and burning the clock. It also helps us limit their possessions and break out ability too,” he said.
The Hawks coach was disappointed with the loss but knew what he was facing.
“They came out in the second half and put together a good drive to score and it just kind of snow-balled on us after that,” Sloan said.
The Hawks had difficulty with the Liberty offense.
“That double wing that they run is hard to defend and you don’t see it much,” he said. “Their backs are very patient.”
Sloan said the game was won in the trenches.
“That’s a solid ball club. That’s where you win ball games,” he said. “I thought they controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”
The loss ends the Hawks season.
Here’s a look at the playoff schedule for area teams who earned a berth in the first round:
The Liberty Panthers will face the Center Roughriders on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Eagle Stadium in Woodville. All tickets will be sold at the gate. Adults $6 and Students $4.
Coldspring-Oakhurst defeated Palestine Westwood, 46-12. The Trojans earned a playoff berth and will face Woodville in the first round of the playoffs next Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Abe Martin Stadium in Lufkin.
Shepherd knocked off Huntington 27-7 and advances to play Silsbee in the first round of the playoffs next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Bronco Stadium in Dayton.
Despite Hardin’s 48-7 loss to Woodville on Friday night, they finish in fourth place and advance to the first round of the playoffs against Franklin next Thursday at 7 p.m. The game will be played at Waller ISD Stadium. All tickets will be sold at the gate. Adults $5 and Students $3.