by Rob Grubbs
Last year, the Starr’s Mill-Griffin game ended deciding the region championship. The Panthers held on in that one to beat the Bears in a wild one, 52-49 at Memorial Stadium. After a stinging defeat to Whitewater last week, Griffin looked to get back on track and even their region record. In front of a packed house, it was the Bears who avenged last season’s loss by upsetting the Panthers at home, 29-28. The Bears used a late game rally and held on to escape with the victory, even though Starr’s Mill was in control most of the contest.
On Griffin’s first offensive possession, the Panther defense showed scheme and athleticism as they sacked quarterback Camron McDowell twice, once by defensive end Coltin Houser and the other on a corner blitz by Philip Pfaffman. The first quarter was a defensive chess match as both teams played for field position.
The Panthers scored first on a tough one-yard run on 4th and goal by Mitchell Prowant.
On the ensuing kickoff, Houser destroyed two blockers and the kick returner which pinned the Bears deep in their own territory. Hunter Lawson picked off a McDowell pass, and the Panthers added to their lead with a 26-yard touchdown run from Nick Brown.
The Bears changed quarterbacks, going with senior Avious Nelson, who directed the first Bear scoring drive of the night, culminating in a 15-yard pass to Shondarius Mayes. Nelson brought the Bears a spark, and they got the ball back with two minutes in the half and drove quickly down field. With 51 seconds remaining, Nelson ran for 16 yards down to the Starr’s Mill ten. They prepared to down the ball to get their field goal unit in, but the Panthers were penalized for too many men on the field. With the ball now on the 4, Griffin brought the offense back out, but a jump pass from Malik Taylor was broken up in the end zone by Lawson, and the Panthers maintained their 14-6 lead.
Griffin received the second half kickoff and returned it out to midfield. In just five plays they had moved to the Panther 18 yard line, but a Pfaffman interception in the end zone ended the threat.
After Brown gained 11 yards on a tough run, quarterback Joey DeLuca found a wide open Branden Rew down the right sideline for a 69-yard touchdown strike. However, the game took a strange turn. After a nine-minute referee deliberation, three penalties were assessed which resulted in the touchdown called back, a Griffin player ejected, and a 15-yard penalty against the Panthers.
Coach Chad Phillips showed confidence in DeLuca, as he connected again with Rew for a 56-yard pass, the Bear defender barely holding on to save the touchdown. After another touchdown was called back for holding, Prowant punched it in on a 6-yard run as the Panthers led 21-6 with five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Griffin had a long kickoff return negated on a penalty, this for an illegal hit on Houser. While the penalty backed the Bears up, the Panthers were hurt more as Houser was forced to leave the game, depriving them of a key component of the defense.
Without the Houser’s relentless pass rush, Nelson had time in the pocket and found Mayes again, this time for an 87-yard touchdown. After Starr’s Mill fumbled the kickoff, the Bears pulled even to start the fourth quarter, 21-21. It was a disastrous four minute stretch for the Panthers.
They showed the grit and resolve of a senior-led team by driving down the field quickly to retake the lead. Fueled by a pass to Rew for 40 yards and a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, Kalen Sims found the end zone on a 16-yard run and a 28-21 lead.
The Panthers seemed to ice the game late when Charlie Mizzell recovered a fumble with eight minutes remaining, but the Bears regained possession deep in Panther territory following a good punt return. Taylor, taking the snap from the wildcat formation, scored on a 6-yard run. The Bears, going for the win, executed the two-point conversion, again on a Taylor run.
The Panthers had one last chance. They got the ball back with 1:30 remaining and quickly moved downfield. Bolstered by another late hit on DeLuca, the Panthers were at the Bear 27 with less than 20 seconds remaining. DeLuca’s pass to the end zone was intercepted, but the defender had knocked the Panther receiver down during his route, giving the ball to the Panthers on the six yard line for one last play, an untimed down.
The field goal was missed to the left, leaving the Panther comeback just short.
There is no time to dwell, as the Panthers face Whitewater on Friday, who easily handled Griffin earlier. While the region championship is still in reach for the Panthers, the margin of error just got a lot thinner.