For the first 91/2 minutes of Friday's Southwest Conference football opener, North Medford seemingly could do no wrong against Grants Pass at Spiegelberg Stadium.
The rest of the game, however, was overwhelmingly dominated by the Cavemen as Grants Pass used its superior depth and a punishing ground attack to win going away, 45-7.
"We were on our heels defensively at first," said GP head coach John Musser, whose team trailed 7-0 before rallying in the final three quarters. "That's a physical football team downhill, but what hurts North right now, I think, is just their lack of depth. We wore them down by the end of the game and that kinda proved to be the difference there in the second and third quarters."
Hunter Rich scored three rushing touchdowns in the third quarter for Grants Pass (1-2, 1-0 SWC) and passed for another nine seconds into the final frame on a fourth-down effort to highlight his team's night. Rich finished with 87 yards rushing on 10 carries and completed 7 of 14 passes for 68 yards.
"We just kept our composure and just attacked them and attacked and attacked," said Rich. "I knew we were better conditioned than them and we just kept forcing the tempo and running the ball down their throats."
Grants Pass amassed 309 of its 377 yards on the ground, with Anthony Mattie carving through the defense for 173 yards and one TD on 21 carries.
Early indications left no reason to believe the game would turn into a rout.
North Medford (1-2, 0-1) received a pair of sensational plays from Brody Zoller in the first few minutes, with the senior hustling to down a Hunter Hermansen punt at the GP 1-yard line and, five plays later, leaping for an interception over Riley Veritch on a deep pass by Rich.
The Black Tornado followed with a 62-yard drive built on the determined running of Evan Hisey that was capped by a 1-yard dive from sophomore fullback Nick Janakes. The extra-point kick by Preston Chachere, who returned to the team after a brief absence this week, gave North a 7-0 lead with 3:52 to go in the first quarter.
The excitement among the home fans grew moments later when late turnout Oshea Bailey tracked down Chachere's ensuing kickoff, which had glanced off GP's Ben Glaeser, and recovered the ball at the 27-yard line.
Sophomore quarterback Troy Fowler found Riley Driscoll for a 6-yard gain and then Hisey smashed through the line for a 4-yard gain to keep the Tornado rolling along. Then on first down from the Grants Pass 17, Fowler turned and pitched the ball to Bailey for his first carry of the season, only to have the ball glance off the runner's hands for a fumble that was recovered by Mattie.
Instead of potentially going up two scores, quite possibly 14-0 given the way North was moving the football, the Black Tornado had the wind taken out of its sails in that one key moment.
"There's a few major points in any game but that was certainly a major one," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. "We were trying to play a new guy and unfortunately he fumbled and that will shake Oshea's confidence a little. I think if we go up 14-0, we've got a chance and maybe we play even better."
That didn't turn out to be the case, as Grants Pass used the big turnover to pry momentum away from the Black Tornado and dial up its own intensity. The only thing that kept the Cavemen from tying the score on their ensuing drive was a nice play by Dominique Barnett, who collided with Jonah Musser around the goal line after a short pass by Rich and poked the ball loose. When the ball rolled through the end zone, it was ruled a touchback and possession was given to North Medford — plus a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct when coach Musser argued the ruling.
Still, Grants Pass found a way to put together another solid drive, capped by a 22-yard field goal from Moges Dinkins, in the second quarter and went up for good one series later when Mattie bowled in from the 1-yard line despite a nice defensive stand by Fou Polataivao.
The second half was more of the same as Rich scored on runs of 1, 1 and 4 yards on the Cavemen's opening three drives — the last set up by another turnover on a low pitch back to Janakes by Fowler near midfield.
A blocked punt by Ethan Straw set up GP's touchdown just nine seconds into the fourth quarter, with Rich finding Bracken Sharp on a fourth-down play from the North 14-yard line.
The Cavemen capped the scoring when Garret Lofing returned a fumble by Fowler 47 yards for a touchdown that made it 45-7. Fowler was pressured immediately up the middle on a fourth-and-six play near midfield and couldn't find the handle before Lofing was already upon him.
"We're a better team than 45-7 but right now tonight we're not and that's what the score shows," said Mitchell.
"I just told them we reverted back to where they were a year ago and I don't know why because we've been making progress every single day," the coach said of his post-game talk to his players. "I'm disappointed but we're not going to waste any time worrying about it. We've got Sheldon coming up and so it's only going to get tougher and we've got to get ready to play them."
Hisey finished with 76 yards rushing on 14 carries and Fowler completed 12 of 20 passes for 62 yards to pace the Tornado. Janakes may have been the most impressive player of the night, routinely hustling and giving his all on offense, defense and special teams. The sophomore finished with 61 yards rushing on nine carries and added three catches for 14 yards but was clearly frustrated by Friday's result.
"We've been working hard all week but I don't know if we had the passion and the fire that we needed today," said Janakes. "Tonight we just didn't get it done. I didn't see any substantial decrease in any effort, I think they just wanted it more than us tonight. Next week we're just going to have to come out firing."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry