Whether it was from satisfaction, sheer relief or a combination of the two, Bill Singler couldn't suppress a wry smile in the aftermath of the defensive battle waged between his South Medford football team and Grants Pass Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium.
In a game where both sides had to earn every yard, the Panthers came up with more big plays than the visiting Cavemen in a 10-7 triumph that featured more grit than glitz.
"It wasn't pretty but it was pretty enough so we'll take it," said Singler after his team earned its 12th win over GP in the last 13 meetings.
South Medford recorded five interceptions — two each by Adrian Garcia and Max Farthing and the other by Eric Wallan — and used a wrecking ball linebacker corps of Pat Alexander, Joel Goin and Anthony Gomez to stifle one of the Southwest Conference's top offenses.
Grants Pass (3-4, 3-2 SWC) entered the game averaging 37 points and 368 yards but was held scoreless until 6:40 left in the contest and gained only 217 total yards. Anthony Mattie, the SWC's second-leading rusher, was limited to 71 yards on 21 carries.
"All year our front seven has just played great and, of course, the secondary ... anytime you throw the ball up we've got athletes back there who can go after the ball," said Singler, whose team improved to 5-2 overall and 3-2 in SWC play.
Three of the Panthers' interceptions were made in the end zone to deny the Cavemen, who had chances to gain the upper hand in the first half but routinely were turned away. Three of the first four times quarterback Hunter Rich targeted speedy senior receiver Riley Veritch ended in turnovers. Rich had thrown only four interceptions entering the game.
"We left points out there," said Grants Pass head coach John Musser. "I was telling people all week that it was going to be a game of special teams and turnovers and for sure it was."
"They had us off balance, Bill always does that though," he added. "He knows exactly what you're going to run before you run it it seems like."
Riley Williams' 38-yard field goal for South Medford with 1:09 to go in the first half were the only points in a somewhat sloppy opening 24 minutes.
The second half brought about a more effective effort by South Medford's offensive line and some dedicated running by senior Nick Phillips to help pave the way to victory. Phillips set the tone early by bursting through the middle for a 21-yard gain on South's first play of the third quarter, tucking behind right tackle Joe Cooney for additional yards downfield.
Two plays later, Garcia soared over GP's Kellen Brown in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown reception from senior quarterback Joe McLaughlin and a 10-0 Panther lead.
South Medford had another potential scoring drive snuffed out on a fumble by McLaughlin that was recovered by Kyle Miller at the GP 22, and an interception by Brown in the end zone denied another scoring chance. Although both drives fell short, damage was being done by the Panthers' running game — mostly through Phillips' efforts — to control the clock and keep the Cavemen at bay.
Phillips finished with 138 yards on 21 carries, gaining all but 28 yards in the second half.
"Tonight things kinda changed for me when I went into halftime and my team was telling me that you're a great back and you need to stop turning and trying to cut and just run," said the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder. "I came out and told them I'd do something for the team and in the second half I tried to do just that."
With Sam Curtius (left tackle), Alex Hathaway (left guard), Braxton Repman (center), Jake Sager (right guard) and Cooney building up a lather in the final 24 minutes, Phillips received some nice holes to run into and the senior took it from there.
"We had a little momentum every once in a while and then we'd kinda go back," Curtius said of the blocking change from one half to the other, "but we just did our best to keep pushing and it really came around for us."
"It's a timing thing," Phillips added on the ground game. "We all have to be on the same step at the right time and if it's not that way then the play just collapses. In the second half we all got it down and got communication going and we locked up."
Whatever it took, Singler was pleased to see positive gains from Phillips and senior Ben Casebier (54 yards on 12 carries). The Panthers gained 200 of their 289 yards through the running game.
"They've always had a good run defense; every time we play them it's tough sledding," said Singler. "Our kids in the second half really buckled it up. Anytime you get a back over 100 yards against Grants Pass, that's a feather in your cap."
To their credit, the Cavemen kept plugging away as well and finally broke through in the fourth quarter when Rich escaped a near sack by Alexander and scrambled his way to a 9-yard touchdown run.
There was enough time left for a comeback, but the Cavemen couldn't get a timely stop on South Medford's final drive that included two third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion. Phillips dashed around a nice seal block by Casebier on third-and-1 at the Panther 43 for a 15-yard gain, then Farthing made a sensational leaping grab on third-and-5 for a 13-yard gain to the GP 24 with 31/2 minutes to go.
"It was just great to see Max Farthing go up and make a catch like that," said Singler. "We needed seniors to step up and he stepped up and made a great play."
The final key play came when Phillips used second effort to push his way to a 4-yard gain on fourth-and-2 at the Caver 16. South played it safe with runs over the next four downs sandwiched between Grants Pass timeouts and Farthing sealed the victory with a pick on Rich's last-gasp effort inside the final 10 seconds.
"I'm proud of our kids for fighting right down to the wire," said Musser. "They kept swinging, there's no doubt about that."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry