Panthers knock off Center, 55-38
Six first half possessions, six touchdowns and extra point attempts and the Liberty Panthers needed every one of them including a few more to outscore the upset-minded Center Roughriders Friday night in their state UIL bi-district round of the playoffs.
The Panthers sent the Roughriders packing, 55-38, in a hard-fought first round contest on a cold night at Eagle Stadium in Woodville, Texas.
The Roughriders pulled out everything but the kitchen sink to throw at the potent Liberty offense and steady defense to gain an advantage and that began on the opening kickoff.
The Panthers won the toss and elected to receive the kickoff, but Center had something else in mind.
“I knew they were going to onside kick us,” said Liberty head coach Chad Taylor.
“I could see it in his eyes when we won that toss that was exactly what he was about to do to me,” the coach said.
Following the coin toss, Taylor huddled his team and told them then that the kicker was going to onside kick them and to be ready.
“It was perfect. It went right to our guy, but we just flat out missed it,” he said.
The Liberty defense rose up and stopped the Roughriders forcing a punt.
Set up at their own 15, three plays later J. J. Slack broke free on the outside and ran the ball 60 yards down to the Center 3-yard line. Flip Guillory ran the ball in for the first Liberty score.
The reliable Jesus Landeverde kicked the PAT for a quick 7-0 lead.
“When you get a team that comes out and onside kicks you as much as they did, it’s a sign of respect that they’re giving us. They felt like they had to keep the ball away from us in order to compete,” Taylor said.
On their next possession, Center marched down the field 70 yards for their first score, but the PAT was no good. The Roughriders would struggle all night earning extra point attempts.
Center kicked another onside kick and recovered it. They moved the ball to the Liberty 36 where the Liberty defense forced them to give up the ball on downs. They drove the ball 63 yards in 10 plays and Slack ran the ball in for another Panther TD. A Landeverde PAT gave Liberty a 14-6 advantage to start the second quarter.
Center came back to score and went for the two-point conversion, but the Panther defense smelled out the reverse trick play and stopped them. Liberty led, 14-12.
The Roughriders tried another onside kick, but the Panthers recovered and went on a scoring spree.
“We fielded just enough of them to get through,” he said.
Guillory bolted 39 yards in the next series for a Liberty TD. Then the Panthers recovered a fumble on Center’s next play from scrimmage. Panther quarterback Keegan Turner took advantage and lobbed a pass to Slack for a 41-yard TD strike.
On the following kickoff, Center managed to run the ball back for a TD, although some of the Panther players were in limbo because they saw flags on the field. No penalty so the Roughriders drew to within 28-18 but Liberty wasn’t through with the scoring bonanza.
Another short field for the Panther offense after the Roughriders onside kicked again. This time the Panther scoring drive was capped off by a 21-yard run by Guillory, weaving his way through traffic and finding the end zone.
With 1:04 left in the half, Slack found the end zone again bolting 88-yards down the sideline for a 42-18 Panther lead at the half.
“We took care of business. We moved the ball offensively. I don’t know our final numbers, but they are probably up there,” he said.
“A lot of the night we didn’t have to go far, especially when you get the ball at midfield after an onside kick,” he said.
The Panthers added two more scores in the second half, a 6-yard run by Guillory and TD pass from Turner to Devon Fregia from the Center 21-yard line.
“I’m glad we got out of there. We knew how athletic they were and how good their quarterback was going to be. Their running back is a big strong guy and hard to bring down,” he said.
The Panthers will now face the Giddings Buffaloes in the Area round. This is the Panthers third straight appearance in the Area round and they have revenge on their minds. It’s also the fifth trip to the playoffs in the last six years.
They were booted out of the Regional round of the playoffs in 2016 by Giddings when the Panthers uncharacteristically committed several turnovers.
That was the first year the Panthers had achieved the Regional round of the playoffs since 1963.
“Whenever we saw them on the potential schedule, that was something we wanted to do,” Taylor said.
“We wanted an opportunity to play them again. They are 10-1 and ranked in the state so we’ll have our hands full.”
The Panthers returned to the fieldhouse Saturday morning beginning their preparations for Giddings.
“We’ll be ready. We aren’t scared of them by no stretch of the imagination,” the coach said.