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South Medford had to play a perfect game in order to overcome No. 2-ranked Sheldon, and what transpired Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium fell well short of those desires.
The Panthers struggled to move the football, struggled to hold onto the football, struggled to tackle anyone carrying the football and just plain ol' struggled against the more polished Irish in the Southwest Conference showdown.
Sheldon came out of the gate like a team that had something to prove against the Panthers, tabbed in the preseason as the Irish's top challenger to the SWC crown, and only slowed down once the outcome was well in hand en route to a 52-17 thumping.
"I think we caught South Medford on a bad night for them and we were hitting on all cylinders," said Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson. "It was a good night for us."
The Irish (5-0, 3-0 SWC) signaled what type of night it was going to be when they converted a third-and-21 play from their own 22-yard line with a 60-yard hookup from Taylor Alie to Dylan Lewis. That same combination capped the drive with a 14-yard strike moments later for a 7-0 advantage.
The Panthers (3-2, 1-2) were forced into a three-and-out on their first series, and things took a turn for the worse moments later when Joe McLaughlin's punt was fielded by Connor Strahm at midfield and turned into a stunning score after shaking off four would-be tackles on the 50-yard return.
Down 14-0, South Medford then rolled the dice on fourth-and-2 from its own 28, only to have the pitch from backup quarterback Mark Winans glance off tailback Ben Casebier and result in an 8-yard loss.
Alie instantly connected with Ivan Faulhaber for a 13-yard gain and then the Irish used the short field situation to give Mitch Lewis his first carries of the season and the senior spirited his way to gains of 3 and 4 yards to ultimately put his team ahead 21-0 only seven minutes into the contest.
"When you get into a big game like this, we just didn't settle in quickly enough," said Casebier, who ran for 101 yards and one TD on 20 carries. "They're a really good team and if you don't settle in early they're going to be on top of you like they were tonight."
"We didn't tackle well in the very beginning of the game for whatever reason and that led to big plays on touchdowns and punt returns," added the senior tailback and safety.
Sheldon built a 42-0 lead midway through the second quarter and took a 49-7 advantage into halftime. The Irish mostly played their reserves in the second half.
"We needed to get off to a good start and look them in the eye and it just didn't happen," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "When they scored the first series and we end up punting the ball and can't tackle downfield and he breaks four tackles for a touchdown, right there it just sent the message that, you know what, this is the way it's going to be and it just went from bad to worse then."
If the punt return by Strahm provided a shock to the system, the failed fourth-down attempt seemed to be a knockout blow. Johnson said the decision took him a little by surprise but his defense was all over the play, pushing would-be blockers backward and then aside in pursuit of the failed pitch.
"That was a big play in the game because it kinda snowballed after that," said Johnson.
Singler said the decision to gamble a bit was spurred on by the fast start by Sheldon and a need to try to generate a drive to counter those effects.
"You give them the ball they're going to score whether they have to go 70 yards or 30 yards," said the head coach. "It's just the way it was the first half. We didn't probably have the right play call but we just had to try to stay on the field. At that point you know it's going to snowball either way."
Sheldon blocked McLaughlin's punt on South Medford's next series and scored three plays later on Alie's 23-yard connection with Mitchell Herbert.
Even when the Panthers came up with a positive result, such as when they forced the Irish to turn the ball over on downs at the South 3, those good feelings quickly soured. On the very next snap, sophomore quarterback Craig Contreras couldn't get a handle on the ball and Levi Rotherham recovered the ball in the end zone for a score.
Pinned deep two series later, Contreras had the ball dislodged again on a rollout in the end zone. This time, Brett Nielsen had the ball pop into his hands for a second defensive TD in the second quarter.
Contreras, who had been slated for second-quarter duty all along, got a measure of revenge when his 40-yard pass to Max Farthing on fourth down kept a drive going. Casebier then went in over the left side behind a Kyle Eli block for a 4-yard score that made it 42-7.
Alie answered with a 4-yard scoring pass to Herbert to close out the first-half scoring with 54 seconds to go. Alie completed 11 of 21 passes for 159 yards and three TDs.
After Nathan Starnes' 22-yard field goal capped Sheldon's opening drive of the third quarter, the Panthers tacked on a 33-yard TD pass from McLaughlin to Eric Wallan, who made a leaping and twisting catch over two defenders. Riley Williams' 35 yard field goal provided the only other points of the second half.
"Once you get down like that you've just got to play for Panther pride and that's what we did out there," said South Medford junior Christian Bowley, who ran for 57 yards on seven carries.
"We came out with our hearts big and knew we had to play hard," added Bowley. "We came back and tried to put a challenge up against them but they're a great team."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry