by Rob Grubbs
All week, Starr’s Mil head coach Chad Phillips preached the need for his team to effectively execute their precision, run-based offense to overcome a talented Dutchtown Bulldog team in the first round of the state playoffs. When they found themselves behind 21-17 with nine minutes remaining, senior quarterback Joey DeLuca decided it was too early for a playoff exit and took the game over in the final minutes for a dramatic come from behind 31-28 victory and a date with the second round for the third season in a row.
DeLuca only attempted five passes the entire game and had no completions going into the fourth quarter. His first was a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Mizzell with four minutes remaining that regained the lead for the Panthers. The second completion was just as clutch, on 3rd and 10, he found Mitch Prowant out of the backfield for a 16-yard pass that kept the final drive alive. The biggest play of the season so far was his pass on a fade route to Brandon Rew in the back of the end zone with 40 seconds remaining for the winning score. It will be a play that will go down in the annals of Panther history and talked about for years.
The game started as Phillips had scripted. Starr’s Mill received the opening kickoff and pounded out a nine-play, 65-yard drive for the opening score, culminated by a Nick Brown 1-yard touchdown run.
The Bulldogs held serve with an 80-yard drive of their own, capped off by a 37-yard run by Division 1 prospect Chris Joyce. Both teams scored on their next possession as well, each set up by big kickoff returns. After Starr’s Mill went up 14-7 on a Khalen Sims run, Joyce broke off another 22-yard run to put the Bulldogs into the red zone. Johnathan Andrews scored two plays later to tie it up.
It seemed as if neither team would stop the other, but both defenses soon started to make their presence felt. The Bulldogs held for the first three and out of the game to force a Panther punt, only to see an impressive drive end with a blocked field goal by the Panthers. The Bulldogs got the ball back before the half at midfield and hoped to take the lead for the first time, but Coltin Houser started to impose his will on the freshman quarterback Arendez Fedd. Houser, who plays with a high motor and a bit of an attitude, got two sacks in the next three plays to end the half tied, but more importantly, left a message that the Panther defense was stepping up pressure on the young quarterback.
Dutchtown received the second half kickoff and made their only offensive mistake of the evening on a fumble, but the Bulldog defense forced a Panther turnover just four plays later to get the ball back. The Bulldogs just missed on a fourth down pass in the end zone that would have given them lead, influenced just enough by Houser’s pressure.
After two quarters of no scoring, both teams made up for that in the final nine minutes. The Bulldogs defense stopped a Panther drive to force a Michael Lantz 38-yard field goal for the 17-14 lead. It didn’t last long as Ja’Shaun Poke took the following kickoff 99 yards for a 21-17 Dutchtown lead, their first of the game.
Once the Panthers got behind on the scoreboard, DeLuca took control of the game, which is what you would expect from a three-year starter. His heroics insured the victory and the return trip to the second round. The winning pass was on a 2nd and 2 play from the Bulldog 34-yard line. Rew, who has excellent size and athletic ability, lined up to Deluca’s left and ran a fade pattern to the back of the end zone. Deluca’s throw was on target, and Rew caught it at the height of his jump, well above the defender.
“We work on that play every day at the end of practice,” said Phillips. “They were comfortable with the call, we just had to execute.”
“I knew I had the advantage and Joey threw a perfect ball,” said Rew. “We just made the play.”
The Bulldog defense held the Panther running game to only 205 yards, way below their season average, but DeLuca’s fourth quarter artistry made up the difference. Dutchtown was so focused on stopping the run that receivers were open and he capitalized.
“That is a good football team, we were fortunate,” said Phillips. “They have some amazing athletes. We played our game just like we wanted, and Joey carried us to a victory.”
The victory brings the next challenge, which will be the Bainbridge Bearcats (8-3) at home on Friday night. The Bearcats are led by senior running back and Florida commit Dameon Pierce and will present a whole new set of challenges for the Panther defense. It will be another opportunity for Deluca, Houser, and Rew to continue to raise the bar of Starr’s Mill football.