Panther defense steps up late in 52-49 shootout win

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Panther defense steps up late in 52-49 shootout win

Junior defensive end Coltin Houser lines up for the opening kickoff against the Bears. The game featured two offenses that combined for over 1,000 total yards.

Junior defensive end Coltin Houser lines up for the opening kickoff against the Bears. The game featured two offenses that combined for over 1,000 total yards.

Aelise Gagliano

Junior defensive end Coltin Houser lines up for the opening kickoff against the Bears. The game featured two offenses that combined for over 1,000 total yards.

Aelise Gagliano

Aelise Gagliano

Junior defensive end Coltin Houser lines up for the opening kickoff against the Bears. The game featured two offenses that combined for over 1,000 total yards.

Rilee Stapleton, Staff Writer

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Starr’s Mill and Griffin knew that the winner of Friday’s night matchup had the best shot at winning the region.  The contest was all about offense, as the teams combined for 1,161 total yards, but it was the Starr’s Mill defense that stepped up late securing a 52-49 victory.

“We’re super proud of the boys,” head coach Chad Phillips said. “We were in a bad situation but they kept playing and playing.”

This offensive showcase was possible as the offensive line plowed their way to the Otter’s Chicken Offensive Line of the Week Award.”

— Staff Writer Rilee Stapleton

It was a group effort on offense for the Panthers, as junior running back Cole Gilley picked up 124 yards, and junior Nick Brown ran 19 times for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Also, freshman Khalen Sims and junior Mitch Prowant combined for 113 yards on the ground and Prowant scored three touchdowns.

Junior quarterback Joey DeLuca threw for 109 yards and a touchdown, to go with his 88 rushing yards and second touchdown. However, this offensive showcase was possible as the offensive line plowed their way to the Otter’s Chicken Offensive Line of the Week Award.

“The offensive line did a good job,” Phillips said. “That group probably had their best game.”

For the Bears, senior quarterback Tylan Morton threw for 521 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. Senior wide receiver Marquavious Linner had 170 receiving yards and fellow senior receiver Kerrson Aikens had 125. Linner and Aikens combined for 13 receptions and three touchdowns. Senior running back Dedrick Tyus led the way on the ground, carrying the ball 19 times for 92 yards.

“[Griffin is] just athletic,” junior running back Cole Gilley said. “Their quarterback can really sling it, [and] anyone on the team can score every time they touch it.”

The Panthers had possession to start the night, and didn’t waste any time. On the third play of the drive, DeLuca broke off a 41-yard rush that put the Panthers deep in Griffin territory. However, the Panthers had to settle for an attempt at a field goal. Sophomore Michael Lantz was unable to connect from 37 yards out, and the Panthers came up empty.

Griffin only ran three plays before Morton connected for his first touchdown of the night, finding senior Tyrique Williams for a 54-yard score. With 8:01 left in the first, the Bears held a 7-0 lead. The Panther offense couldn’t respond and punted the ball right back to Griffin.

“There’s times we just can’t execute,” defensive coordinator Jeff Schmidlkofer said. “Our guys get nervous but we just have to stop the slow starts.”

The Bears scored quick once again on a 14-yard pass from Morton to Linner. The touchdown capped off a 6-play, 67-yard drive, and with 3:03 left in the first quarter the Bears were already up 14-0.

Junior wide receiver Brandon Rew looks over his shoulder to catch a pass from junior quarterback Joey DeLuca. DeLuca threw for 109 yards and a touchdown, but the Panther backfield carried the load with over 400 yards on the ground.

Aelise Gagliano
Junior wide receiver Brandon Rew looks over his shoulder to catch a pass from junior quarterback Joey DeLuca. DeLuca threw for 109 yards and a touchdown, but the Panther backfield carried the load with over 400 yards on the ground.

The Panthers needed to respond, and junior Brandon Rew came through, catching a 31-yard touchdown pass from DeLuca to cut the lead to 14-7. After one quarter, the Bears totaled more yardage, 180-114, and led the Panthers by seven.

“As the game goes on we progressively get better,” Gilley said. “We don’t implode. We get stronger and stronger as a unit.”

The second quarter began in the midst of the Bears’ third scoring drive. A nine-play, 68-yard drive ended with another touchdown connection from Morton to Williams. This time it was from 35 yards out. The Bears now held a 21-7 advantage, but the ball went back to the Panther offense.

The Panthers followed with a long drive of their own. The possession featured a 50-yard pass from DeLuca to Brown, and was finished off by a 1-yard run from DeLuca. The scoreboard had 7:54 until half and the score sat at 21-14.

“It takes us a little bit of time to get to game speed,” Phillips said. “It’s hard to adjust to game speed [really] fast.”

The Bears responded with a quick drive that only lasted 53 seconds, and after four plays Morton threw his fourth touchdown of the game. The 29-yard strike increased the Bear lead to 14.  

The next drive included a 27-yard scramble from DeLuca, and the 6-play drive was finished by Prowant as the deficit was cut to 28-21. The Bears followed with a 10-play drive but it was cut short by an interception from senior Kennon Golden. The Panthers couldn’t capitalize on the turnover and the score stayed at 28-21 as the teams went to the locker room at halftime.

“They’ve been down before, they know how to come back,” Schmidlkofer said. “They battle and that’s all we can ask them to do.”

On the third play of the second half,  Morton found Aiken for an 87-yard touchdown, increasing the Bear lead to 35-21. Just 56 seconds into the third quarter Griffin stretched the lead out once again. The Bears defense backed up the score with a quick stop, and Griffin’s offense returned to the field.

Nick Brown stiff-arms a Bear defender on a run against Griffin. Brown accounted for 92 yards and two scores in the Panthers’ 52-49 victory.

Aelise Gagliano
Nick Brown stiff-arms a Bear defender on a run against Griffin. Brown accounted for 92 yards and two scores in the Panthers’ 52-49 victory.

This possession, however, ended differently than the previous ones. Griffin had started at their own 15 yard line, and the Panther defense forced the first Griffin punt of the night. But the Bears’ punter dropped the snap and was tackled in the endzone for a safety. The Panthers gained two points and possession of the ball.

“We play hard,” Schmidlkofer said. “We play with a lot of effort, [but] we’re not real consistent.”

After the safety, Sims broke off a 38-yard run on the second play of the drive. The following play was a 10-yard touchdown run from Prowant. Now the Panthers only trailed 35-30 with 7:27 left in the third quarter.

However, the Bears took the ball and started slowly marching down the field. On the seventh play, Linner beat his defender and torched the Panther defense for a 45-yard touchdown. Starr’s Mill now looked at a 12 point deficit with region rankings on the line.

“We need to improve on being physical,” Gilley said. “Normally the more physical team wins the football game.”

The next Panther drive started with two penalties on Starr’s Mill. Backed up on their own five yard line, the Panthers gave the ball to Gilley, who took the ball 85 yards down the field and put them in scoring position. On the next snap, Brown punched in a 10-yard touchdown rush.

The Bears’ next drive only lasted one play, as Linner lost the ball and the Panther offense came back on the field. The following Panther drive ran the rest of the third quarter out, and the first play of the fourth quarter was a 3-yard touchdown run from Brown. The Panthers attempted a two-point conversion and Brown punched the ball in to put the score at 45-42, in favor of Starr’s Mill.

“Physically, we match up with everyone we play [going forward],” Phillips said. “Hopefully this game will give us a lot more confidence.”

The Bears retaliated with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that consisted of three plays that the Bears gained over 15 yards. The drive was finished with Morton throwing his seventh touchdown of the night, and putting the Bears back on top, 49-45.

The Panthers had eight minutes to regain the lead, and they only took four minutes to do so. The 10-play drive resulted with a 3-yard score from Prowant, his third of the night. The Panther defense followed with the game-clinching interception.

“We’ve been battle tested,” Phillips said. “Sometimes you have to lose some battles to win the war.”

The Panthers left Griffin with a 52-49 victory, and improved their record to 4-3, 2-0 in the region. The Bears suffered their first loss of the year, and fell to 1-1 in the region. The Panthers’ next game is against Whitewater Wildcats, who hold a 4-2 record, and have a 1-1 region record. The Wildcats look to avenge last season’s loss, while the Panthers seek a bigger lead in the region standings.