JEFFERSON — The Jackson County Panthers entered Friday night’s matchup against Elbert County on a four-game skid and with an offense that seemed close to running out of gas after scoring only three times during that stretch.
That was not the case at Panther Stadium on this rainy night, as the seniors were honored prior to the game and the Panthers scored three touchdowns before halftime.
Despite a heart-wrenching 28-27 loss to the Blue Devils, the Panthers (3-5, 0-5 Region 8-AAA) proved again that they are taking steps to turn around the program.
In only his second start, Panthers quarterback Jalen Banks passed for 169 yards while completing 23 of 33 passes and directing the offense against one of Region 8-AAA’s stingiest defenses.
“We put Jalen at quarterback and he led this offense the way we knew that he could,” Panthers coach Billy Kirk said. “We saw a Jackson County team play football tonight. We knew our kids were going to come out and play hard and they did that tonight. The seniors knew this was their last home game and it was one of their best.”
After the Panthers missed a 26-yard field goal, Valdon Cooper’s 82-yard run with 5:34 remaining in the third quarter gave the Blue Devils the lead for good. Jackson County failed to convert on a fourth-down pass on the ensuing drive.
“We had some chances to win the game,” Kirk said. “We proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can play with anybody. I wanted this win for these kids so bad. We just fell on the wrong side of things.”
The Panthers struck first on a 13-yard run by Charles Smothers, who finished with 42 yards on nine carries, with 9:46 remaining in the opening quarter, capping off a nine-play, 62-yard drive.
The Panthers defense, which had struggled over the previous three weeks, was in top form against a Blue Devils squad that had scored a combined 75 points in the previous two games.
The Panthers' defense set the tone early, forcing the Blue Devils to punt on their first drive. With their offense on the sidelines, the Blue Devils' defense evened the score by taking advantage of a turnover.
On third and long, Trey Heard intercepted an errant throw by Banks, who was replacing Alex Crawford — who remains out with a shoulder injury — and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
“That was huge for us,” Blue Devils coach Brent Miller said. “That was the difference in the ballgame. He made a great play.”
The Panthers responded quickly after taking over at the 44-yard line. Michael Pesaresi took over moments later and gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead on a 2-yard run.
The Panthers defense stepped things up on the ensuing drive. On third down, Trey Pettyjohn sacked Blue Devils quarterback Hunter Blackmon. Cody Atkins applied pressure on fourth down, forcing an incompletion and ending the drive.
Pesaresi, who finished with three touchdowns and 78 yards on 20 carries, added a 1-yard score late in the game to pull the Panthers within a point, but the extra point was no good.
“Both of these teams played hard tonight,” Miller said. “We can’t take anything away from those guys because they played well.”