Two minutes and 20 seconds of slopping around in the unfamiliar, chilly muck of familiar Red Devil Hill changed a pair of destinies Friday night.
Liberty County appeared destined for the second round of the Class AAA playoffs, a 12-point favorite according to the Maxwell Ratings computer, almost halfway to doing what it was supposed to do. The Panthers had benefited from a questionable call, forced the home team to turn the ball over on downs and looked forward to piling on after receiving the second-half kickoff. They were sitting pretty for the first 19-plus minutes.
Meanwhile, the Red Devils seemed destined for the one and done, the crash and burn and the null and void. Its only big play had been immediately undone by the ensuing snap, and one step forward gave birth to two in reverse. But you can’t blink with these Red Devils, who proved once again that appearances can be deceiving.
They scrambled the Maxwell hard drive by rattling off 21 points in less time than you can fully microwave a burrito. With big plays from Gavin Glass and Jamari Johnson lighting their fire, the Red Devils sent Liberty County packing into its offseason with a 28-11 beating.
With that, Jackson heads for the hills — a 143-mile trip to the mountain hamlet of Chatsworth — for a second-round clash with North Murray, the Region 8-AAA champion which eliminated Monroe Area 28-14. A quarterfinal berth, an elusive target during Dary Myricks’ seven-year run as head coach, is at stake for the fourth time.
The Red Devils stunned the Panthers on Carson Biles’ 58-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Henderson with 4:19 left in the first half. It was a right hook that staggered the visitors and snapped their helmets back. Then, the Red Devils moved in for the finishing blows.
Glass, playing what Myricks called “without a doubt, his best high school football game,” made sure the momentum would remain on Jackson’s side. He intercepted Dionte Bowens’ pass just 27 seconds later, with 3:52 to go, returning it 42 yards from the Jackson 45 to the Liberty County 13.
“It wasn’t just the interception,” Myricks said. “It was a couple of game-saving tackles, a great tackle on special teams. He came to play tonight.”
Even Glass wasn’t sure how things turned as quickly as they did.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “We just put our hearts into it. When my brothers went down, I went in for them. I had to do it for them.”
Glass referred to his filling a void created when linebacker Jalen Medlock aggravated an ankle injury early in the game. Medlock watched the rest of it while on crutches, unable to contribute on defense or offense. The Red Devils didn’t need his offense because of the way Alex Patrick picked up where Glass set him up.
Patrick, who had 148 yards on 16 carries, took it the last 13 yards, scoring on a 2-yard run with 2:47 to go to make it 14-5.
On the Panthers’ next possession, which lasted all of eight whole seconds, Johnson found a loose ball calling his name.
“It was crazy,” he said. “All my defensive linemen were rushing in and I was like, ‘I think [Liberty is] fixin’ to throw a screen.’ The quarterback can’t hold onto the ball. So when he dropped it, I’m looking around and I looked down and the ball was right in front of me. So I scoop it up, I take off, he tries to tackle me, I stiff-armed him and I made a big play, thanks to my defense.”
Johnson hauled it to the Liberty County 12, setting up Henderson for a 7-yard scoring run with 1:59 to go. By the time the Panthers had a chance to clear their heads, their five-point lead had gone up in smoke, replaced by a 16-point deficit.
Elapsed time: two minutes, 20 seconds. There was yet a half to play, but Liberty’s burrito was done.
“After we kept scoring, it’s cold out here and they came three hours to get here,” Patrick said. “They were ready to go back home.”
The ball was slick, but no slicker for the Panthers (6-3) than it was for the Red Devils (8-3). It was 44 degrees and wet on the Liberty County sideline, but no warmer or drier on Jackson’s.
Myricks had noticed in video that when Liberty County commits turnovers, they often come in bunches. So the Red Devils were prepared to capitalize.
Biles, who naturally handled the ball the most as quarterback, said it wasn’t overly difficult to get a grip on it, although he might’ve wished he hung onto it earlier. Officials had penalized him for intentionally grounding the ball out of the end zone — tossing the ball to nobody in an attempt to avoid a sack.
Myricks argued strenuously that Biles was 2 yards clear of the end zone and was trying to pass to Bo Mosteller. Nevertheless, the officials awarded the Panthers a safety. Coupled with a Liberty County first-quarter field goal, the additional two points made it 5-0.
The junior QB got a firm grip on his redemption and handled it flawlessly. He made sure Henderson would likewise get a grip on the ball by following offensive coordinator Leon Murray’s blueprint.
“Coach Murray drew up the play and he was like, ‘Get him the ball, he’s going to be open,’” Biles said. “After that, the defense started playing out of their minds, our running game ran the ball right down their throats and they couldn’t stop it.”
Liberty County fumbled one last time, late in the third quarter, while attempting to punt out of the end zone. Markiese White fell on it for a touchdown. Jackson led 28-5.
The Red Devils did a better job of mastering the elements and then reveled in them when the clock struck :00 for the last time. They ran to the northwest corner of the field near the scoreboard and, finding muddy mini-lakes with nobody diving and splashing in them, jubilantly filled the dubious void.
Myricks shook his head. He’s glad that his team gets the opportunity to be in the hunt, one of only 16 left in Class AAA. But gladness has its limits.
“I just know that I wasn’t going to dive in it,” he said.