Livingston wins a thriller against Panthers

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The Livingston Lions were many things, both good and needing improvement in the 2016 football season. The one thing they weren’t was boring.

With just 18 seconds to go in the game, the Lions’ Raul Fernandez booted a 44-yard field goal to capture a 41-40 win over the visiting Beaumont Ozen Panthers Friday.

Fans in Lion Stadium saw the home team accumulate a 4-1 record in Livingston in a year that was not lacking tense moments. Friday was no different.

Finding themselves down by five late in the third quarter, the Lions (5-5, 4-4) marched for nearly five minutes on 10 plays and 80 yards, culminating in a new shot of adrenaline — running back Brodie Smith.

Smith entered the game, generating a 1-2 punch in the Lion backfield, along with quarterback Hunter Bland (72 rushing yards, 250 passing yards and 4 TDs). It gave the Panthers reason to respect the running game.

Before, the Lions had become one-dimensional. Ozen safeties were waiting on passes with double and triple teams on receivers. Smith’s one-yard plunge was preceded by four runs for 26 yards.

An Ozen (1-7, 1-9) fumble on their next offensive play set Livingston up at the Panther 22. After stalling in six plays, Fernandez came on to put his Lions up five at 38-33 on a 28-yard field goal.

“We thought we needed to take the points (instead of going for the touchdown),” Livingston coach Brian Broussard said. “We knew that they would have to score a touchdown, but you never know if they may try (a field goal) and make it. We thought we had better get the points to where they do have to score the touchdown.”

It took only four plays for Ozen to work the ball down to the Lion 11. Sterling Winzer (146 total yards, 2 total TDs) snatched the handoff and twisted inside the five-yard line, where it looked as if he would go down. However, an offensive lineman caught him and pulled Winzer over the goal line to put the Panthers up, 40-38 with only 2:34 to play.

Bland and Christian Mitchell (182 total yards, 3 TDs), as they have all year, came through for the offense when it mattered most. Starting on their own 13, the Lions began a drive of seven plays. Mitchell hauled in a 30-yard pass, while Bland ran for 25 yards more that included him hurdling a would-be tackler.

Without time outs and the ball resting on the Ozen 27, Broussard was forced to send in the special teams unit and give his junior kicker a chance from 44 yards out. The kick sailed just over outreached Panther hands and had the distance to be good from at least 50 yards out, something the coach said he had done in practice.

“In practice he has hit 50 (yards) multiple times. It was on the left hash, which was great. I was nervous that he might have a little too much adrenaline, and over-kick it and shank it, but he nailed it.

"I didn’t see it; I wasn’t looking,” Broussard said with a nervous look. “I just heard everybody.”
The kicker had a big smile after the game — with plenty of reason.

“I’m pretty sure everyone was nervous,” Fernandez said. “With my team, I was confident. But my nerves, the farther I am, the more nervous I get.”

The Lions had taken the slightest of leads, at 41-40, but the game was not over. With 10 seconds remaining, Charleston Evans (3 receptions, 128 yards, 2 TDs) returned the kickoff to the Lion 38. A 15-yard penalty moved the ball to the Lion 23, creating a much easier opportunity for a score with one second left. Quarterback Dominique Morris dropped to pass, but could not connect with Evans one final time.

“I think this is a true microcosm of the season,” Broussard said. “It was up and down, we had the lead, good plays, bad plays, but the kids kept battling. That’s just kind of how the season went. I can’t say enough about the seniors. Those guys did a tremendous job and they kept us in this thing all night. I can’t put into words what it means for the program and what I think it means for the community. We’ve won five games and we won as many games this year as we did the previous three years combined. To me that’s huge. I hate that we didn’t make the playoffs. One thing happened (Nederland losing) but the other didn’t (Central winning) that we needed to happen.”

The excitement began on the opening kickoff, as a Lion onside kick was recovered by green jerseys. It would set up a hook-and-lateral that went from Bland to Cameron Merchant for seven yards. Instead of turning upfield, Merchant pitched to a streaking Mitchell, who would take it the remaining 41 yards for the score.

“It looks like we had worked that play 10 times each game,” Broussard said. “I looked at the coaches and said it looked like one of our best plays. It never worked that way when we ran it three or four times during practice every day. It was just like back in ’14 (versus Bryan Rudder) when we ran that halfback pass. It never looked like that in practice, either, the way that it worked in the game.

“We took out all the stops. We had (gadget plays) last week, but we just didn’t have them at the right time. We threw one out there on the first play last week, but that was the plan coming in here. Whatever we needed, we were going to do to win the game.”

After a punt on the following Lion possession, the home team would punch in the next three drives, each through the air. Mitchell caught two and Cade Campbell hauled in the third.

The Panthers kept the score close and even held the lead off of an interception, a punt return, and big scoring plays of 35, 51, 20 and 11 yards.

Defensive standouts for the Lions included Aaron Stanley, Brodie Smith and Terry Carter, all playing their final game in Lion Stadium.

IMG 9907Raul Fernandez kicks the game-winning field goal with 10 seconds remaining.

IMG 9854Hunter Bland rushed for 72 yards and passed for four touchdowns and 250 yards.

Copyright 2016 Polk County Enterprise