There wasn't much conventional about the 27th playing of the Black and Blue Game at Spiegelberg Stadium, and maybe that was appropriate given the outcome.
For the first time in series history, a program earned its sixth straight victory as South Medford shrugged off rainy conditions, a handful of injuries and an early challenge by North Medford to score a 38-3 triumph on Friday night.
"I think they had a good push in the beginning but once we got over that hump we just rolled pretty good," said South Medford senior Adrian Garcia, who tied a Black and Blue Game record with two interceptions.
Besides securing his sixth and seventh picks over the past three games, Garcia hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass from senior Joe McLaughlin to open the scoring and break the Black Tornado's spirit a bit.
The touchdown was set up by a blocked punt by Tristian Lallo that was recovered by Juan Contreras at the North Medford 40-yard line with 1:46 to go in the first quarter. Three plays and one minute later, the Panthers (6-2, 4-2 SWC) were up 7-0 and hungry for more in the Southwest Conference affair.
"I thought when the game started we looked like we were going to compete in it, we really did," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, "but then we got a punt blocked and from that point they just put their tail between their legs a little bit and we didn't play very well after that."
After a three-and-out by the Black Tornado (2-6, 1-5), South Medford needed only three plays to go 43 yards for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead as the rain really began to fall. Christian Bowley's 31-yard run put the Panthers in position and then McLaughlin did well to find Mark Winans in the back of the end zone from 11 yards out for the score.
North Medford's effort to answer was going along smoothly behind the power running of Evan Hisey and the rollout strikes by Troy Fowler, but bad luck soon found the Tornado. After his sixth straight pass attempt, Fowler went to the sideline on a timeout as North tried to set up a fourth-down play from the South 29 but Mitchell said the sophomore just wasn't himself.
"In that last huddle we have a play we call Portland and he looked at me and said, 'Coach, I don't know what that is,' and I knew something was wrong at that point so we got him out of there," said Mitchell. "I didn't see him get hit but he wasn't quite himself."
The concussion-like symptoms that sidelined Fowler also forced the Tornado to call a second straight timeout so it could get backup quarterback Alec Furst in for the play. Furst's pass attempt was nearly intercepted by Anthony Gomez to give the ball back on downs, but that was the least of North Medford's concerns at the time.
With Furst only eligible to play one quarter after guiding the junior varsity team Thursday night, the Tornado was in quite a quandary since usual varsity backup Jordan Towe wasn't at the game due to a prior commitment and JV starter Josh Berman left the team earlier in the week.
While that situation was brewing, McLaughlin was busy driving the Panthers quickly downfield for another score, this one capped on an 11-yard pass to Max Farthing in the front of the end zone for a 21-0 advantage.
"I was really proud of Joe McLaughlin and how he led our football team in the first half," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "He made some really good throws under duress and kids responded and made good catches as well."
With sophomore wide receiver Tristen Holmes now under center for the Black Tornado, North's ensuing drive went nowhere inside the final minute of the first half and South took over at the Tornado 31 with 11.8 seconds to go.
McLaughlin scrambled 19 yards on first down to potentially set up a last-second field goal attempt but South couldn't get the clock stopped in time. Making matters worse, McLaughlin came up limping on the play and had to be helped off the field, marking the second starter sideline after senior left tackle Sam Curtius was lost to a knee injury late in the first quarter.
"They think it's broken," McLaughlin said after the game of his right foot. "I just got rolled up or something on that last run, I don't really know. But I have to say, there's no other way I'd rather go out than just playing and playing hard."
McLaughlin finished 7-for-7 for 89 yards and three touchdowns in his most efficient showing of the season.
"With the rain and stuff he did a great job of throwing the ball to where we needed it to go," said Garcia.
Both teams went to their backup quarterbacks in the second half, with Craig Contreras guiding the Panthers to a 44-yard field goal by Riley Williams and a 1-yard touchdown run by Bowley in the final 24 minutes. Senior cornerback Grady Smith also added a 62-yard interception return for a score as the only two completions by Holmes in the second half on his five attempts went to the Panthers.
"When Troy got hurt it really hurt us," said Mitchell. "But I have to say, Tristen Holmes went in and did a really credible job considering I spent 20 minutes talking at halftime to build him a package he could run. He did a pretty good job of that."
Holmes had played some quarterback last year for North's freshman team but hadn't practiced at the position this year so he could focus on his receiver duties. He ran five times for 20 yards but the Tornado's offense was almost exclusively a handoff to Hisey in the second half. The senior, who leads the SWC in rushing, carried 29 times for 98 yards before leaving the field with three minutes to go after rolling his ankle.
"It's a hard loss being our senior year and last time we're playing on this field," said Hisey. "It's really emotional right now but South definitely deserved to win that game. They played their butt off."
Preston Chachere's 30-yard field goal with 1:34 to play allowed North to avoid being shutout for the second straight year. The Panthers limited the Tornado to 124 yards rushing on 40 attempts and 152 yards overall.
"(North Medford) brought a lot of enthusiasm to the game early but our rush defense is pretty darn good and they did a nice job of containing their offense early," said Singler.
South Medford amassed 325 yards of offense, with Bowley running 13 times for 76 yards and Nick Phillips seven times for 52 yards. Garcia finished with five catches for 83 yards.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry