A football field is 100 yards long, but some nights a victory can come down to just a few inches. The McIntosh Chiefs (5-2, 1-2) were just a few inches to the left from upsetting the Starr’s Mill Panthers (7-1, 3-1) Friday night, instead falling 36-35 on a late missed field goal.
An all-night shootout saw the Chiefs drive down into the red zone and line up for a potential 32-yard game-winning field goal. The same setup happened two weeks ago with Starr’s Mill lining up to kick. In both instances, the ball sailed wide of the mark, but this time the Panthers were the beneficiary.
“This was a great game for our community,” said Starr’s Mill coach Chad Phillips. “I’m proud of the way we battled back and showed a lot of fortitude and never quit. We’ve got some things to clean up, but that was a good character check.”
The outcome was heartbreaking for the Chiefs who were so close to beating the Panthers for just the second time in the history of the rivalry. When the dust settles and the wounds heal, they’ll be able to appreciate what a great game they played.
“I am extremely proud of our guys. We asked them in pregame to battle for four quarters and then some if necessary, and that’s exactly what they did,” said McIntosh coach Lee Belknap, whose team’s effort reminded him of the famous Teddy Roosevelt “Man in the Arena” speech. “They laid their guts out, and they stuck their necks out, and we went toe to toe with our arch rival. They had the better football team tonight.”
Phillips was quick to heap praise on his competitors.
“First of all, you’ve got to tip your hat to the McIntosh kids. Their coaching staff had them ready to play,” said Phillips. “I felt like they might have out-coached us at some points.”
The opening sequence of the game was not indicative of the offensive explosion to come. McIntosh fumbled the ball away on their opening possession, and Starr’s Mill turned it over on downs after taking over deep in Chief territory. Neither offense would be kept out of the end zone again until the scoreless fourth quarter when McIntosh had the game’s first punt, the Panthers followed with another turnover on downs, and the Chiefs missed the field goal with under a minute to play.
Building off the energy of the fourth down stop, Bradley Ector lit the flames for the Chief offense with a 51-yard run on the next snap. Quarterback Dane Kinamon moved the chains on third down in the red zone to set up an Ector 6-yard touchdown. William Mason’s extra point staked the Chiefs to a 7-0 lead, and Mason would be a perfect 5 for 5 on the night.
Starr’s Mill responded with a methodical 85-yard scoring drive chewing more than six minutes off the clock. Mitch Prowant moved the chains with a 21-yard run, and a pair of third down conversions kept the series going. Nick Brown slipped loose for 19 yards on 3rd and 1, and Prowant picked up seven yards on 3rd and 5 into the red zone. Karsen Kalen capped it off, calmly retrieving a fumbled pitched and racing around the corner into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion proved the difference in the final score as Joey DeLuca rolled to his right and hit Charlie Mizzell for an 8-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
De’Andre Wade returned the ensuing kickoff out past midfield, and the Chiefs made it count. Going to the air, Kinamon moved the chains with completions to Ector and Ryan Cate. On 4th and 5 in the red zone, Kinamon looked for Cate in double coverage, who absorbed a big hit and held on for 11 yards. Ector punched it in from three yards out for a 14-8 lead.
Nick Brown added his own long return out to the 40, and Prowant did the rest, rumbling through the defense for a 52-yard touchdown. Prowant finished the night with 140 yards and one score on 11 carries. Preston Wheeler, who was 4 for 4 on extra points, put the Panthers back in front 15-14 midway through the second quarter.
Kinamon spread the ball around on their response, hitting Andrew Villiger for 12 yards. After a 22-yard reverse by Cate, Kinamon executed the play-action fake to perfection and hit a wide-open Jacob Woods for a 23-yard touchdown and the lead.
Starr’s Mill answered with their biggest pass play of the night. DeLuca found Brandow Rew over the top for a spectacular 47-yard catch along the sidelines in excellent coverage. Brown did the rest with a 10-yard touchdown and a 22-21 lead.
Taking over with a minute left in the half, the Chiefs went to work. Cate took a jet sweep for 12 yards and caught an 11-yard pass. Cate piled up 49 yards rushing and 5 catches for 61 yards for the game.
Kinamon moved the chains twice on scrambles, but it looked like their scoring chance might be squashed with a pair of penalties to bump them all the way back from the five-yard line to the 36. With nine seconds left, Ector took a draw up the middle and nearly lost his feet, but recovered from the stumble to race upfield and dive into the end zone with no time left to stake McIntosh to a 28-22 halftime lead.
As well as Starr’s Mill ran the ball in the first half, they looked even better out of the break as the line got great push.
“We went into halftime knowing we were in a dog fight, and in the second half (the line) picked it up,” said Joey DeLuca. “We owe it to them.”
Khalen Sims stepped into the backfield and gave them a huge spark, piling up 141 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries in the second half. His 27-yard touchdown run gave the Panthers a 29-28 lead two minutes into the half.
McIntosh pushed back in front with an eight-minute, 75-yard drive. Two key third conversions, the second on a 9-yard Villiger reception, pushed into Panther territory. After a hard hit by Cole Bishop broke up a third down attempt, the Chiefs faced 4th and 10 at the 32. The pass attempt fell incomplete, but flags for pass interference and roughing the passer extended the drive and set them up inside the 10. Ector took it up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown, his fourth score of the night, and a 35-29 lead. Ector finished with 173 yards and the four scores on 20 carries.
Backed up deep in their own end, the Panthers strung together an 89-yard drive. Sims kicked it off with a 31-yard run, slipping several tacklers, on the first snap. He added another 15 yards to get into Chief territory. DeLuca put his team back in front on an option keeper, racing untouched for a 32-yard touchdown to pull back in front 36-35 late in the third quarter. DeLuca finished with 33 yards rushing and a score, along with 73 yards through the air.
“It’s awesome,” DeLuca said of the feeling of beating their rivals in a thriller. “Our class went 4-0 against them, and we have a bunch of friends over there, so it’s great to be able to talk a little trash against them.”
As he’s done all season, DeLuca was the calm senior leader under center the Panthers need.
“He checked us two or three times into different plays, and he made the right call every time,” said Phillips. “He’s just a real good kid.”
McIntosh punted the ball on their first possession of the fourth quarter, and their defense responded by forcing a turnover on downs on Starr’s Mill’s turn.
The Chiefs took over on their own 21 with five minutes left. They chewed up the field in chunks, slowly burning the clock down as they sought to have the last drive in the game. Kinamon scrambled for a first down, and Ector added another, but would have to leave the game with an injury as the home crowd chanted his name. Kinamon took it on himself, keeping the ball on the option read and running for 35 yards into the red zone.
Kinamon finished the night with 104 yards rushing on 15 attempts and 116 yards and a score on 11 of 13 passing.
On 3rd and 6, Joseph Lynch burst through the line for an absolutely huge sack to back up the kick attempt. Stepping in as the place kicker for his first attempt of the night, Adrien Richez’s attempt missed just to the left.
Taking over with under a minute remaining, the Panthers were able to kneel out the clock and sew up the 36-35 victory.
McIntosh will try to bounce back this Friday with a key road game at Griffin.
“We’ll regroup,” said Belknap. “We’ll throw this one in the trash, and we’ll move on and get ready for Griffin.”
Starr’s Mill, in a tie atop the region, is off this Friday.
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