West Salem junior quarterback Cade Smith proved elusive at every turn, just as South Medford head coach Bill Singler feared he might heading into Friday's season opener at Spiegelberg Stadium.
The Panthers held a second-half lead against the seventh-ranked Titans but couldn't see it through, largely due to the escapability of Smith in a physical nonconference test that saw South Medford lose three key seniors before halftime.
Smith guided the Titans to scoring drives of 82 and 95 yards in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, to rally past South Medford, 19-14.
"I said he could beat us with his legs and he did," said Singler. "It wasn't really his arm, it was his legs more than anything. He's a bona fide player and one of the top quarterbacks in the state. I thought we contained him pretty well in the first half and then we just kinda let it get away from us a little bit."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Smith finished with 170 yards rushing and one touchdown on 26 carries and completed 16 of 27 passes for 163 yards and two scores. With the outcome in the balance, Smith ran for 46 and completed 3 of 4 passes for 47 yards to spearhead a 95-yard, game-winning drive. His 13-yard back corner fade to Keegen Hlad with 8:56 to play capped the drive and gave the Titans their first lead since their opening series.
"That team came of age on that drive," said Singler. "You could see them grow confidence and that's going to propel them on to great things."
South Medford twice entered the Titans' side of the field later in the fourth quarter in an effort to reclaim the advantage but the Panthers were undone by costly penalties and limited protection for junior quarterback Craig Contreras.
After Ja'lante Applewhite returned West Salem's kickoff to the Titans' 38-yard line, the Panthers appeared destined for an answering score when Contreras found C.J. Daniels for a 21-yard gain but it was all negated by a personal foul penalty. Contreras nearly rescued his team with some elusiveness on his own, firing a deep ball that just sailed over the leaping effort of Brady Breeze, but South's drive was thwarted at the 35.
After holding the Titans to a three-and-out, Daniels put his team on the West Salem side with a punt return and a facemask penalty. A quick 5-yard completion to Breeze put the Panthers at the Titans' 36 and then Josh Hall bounced around for an 8-yard gain before having it all called back due to a false start — the 20th combined penalty of the night.
South Medford failed to gain another yard after that and West Salem ran out the final 3:29 with scrambles by Smith and runs by Gary Garvin, who totaled 92 yards on 14 carries overall.
West Salem committed 13 penalties for 113 yards on the night, while South Medford was flagged eight times for 75 yards.
"It was a tough game but we battled it out," said South Medford senior Anthony Gomez, who had one interception, a handful of tackles and a 2-yard TD run. "It just didn't come out as we planned, but next week we're going to come back even stronger and be the team that we know we are."
That ability will be tested given the toll Friday's contest took on the Panthers, who delivered a host of big hits but wound up the worse for wear with early injuries to senior linemen Kyle Eli and Tristian Lallo and tailback Christian Bowley.
"What a rock-em sock-em game," said Singler. "There was some tough hitting out there for a first ballgame."
Eli sustained a knee injury on the opening series of the game, while Bowley suffered an ankle injury midway through the second quarter on a play where he was held up and straining for extra yardage and wound up fumbling after being gang-tackled. Lallo also exited in the second quarter with a broken finger that included having the nail torn completely off.
"Those are three of our leaders and play both ways at times," said Singler. "It's tough to lose those guys but we had some other guys step up. That's just the way football is, some guys go down and other guys gotta step up."
Chief among those players to step up were Breeze, who caught six passes for 48 yards in his varsity debut and was among South Medford's leading tacklers from the safety position. Hall also gave the Panthers a boost even after playing two quarters in the preceding junior varsity game, finishing with 23 yards on eight carries on a night when South managed only 38 yards rushing on 20 attempts.
Senior Riley Williams also came up big with booming punts to change field position for the Panthers, and his decleater on a kickoff return by West Salem to open the second half might have been the hardest hit of the night.
Gomez also had a few knee-buckling efforts to help set the pace and Brayden Massey forced and recovered a fumble, but tackles in the trenches were few and far between for a South Medford defense that allowed 239 yards rushing and 402 overall. Buoyed by Contreras' 10-for-23 passing for 111 yards, the Panthers countered with only 149 yards of total offense.
"We've just got to look at things and don't panic, obviously," said Singler. "We lost to a top-10 team, it's not like we lost to some Podunk U team. We'll get better."
Smith opened the scoring with a 31-yard touchdown run in the first quarter but South Medford answered back shortly after each team traded two-play drives that were halted by interceptions. After a bad snap on a punt attempt gave South the ball at the West Salem 19, Bowley sliced through the Titans on two carries to put the ball at the 2, where Gomez went over from there.
The Panthers broke a 7-all halftime tie on their first series of the second half, with Contreras finding Mark Winans in open space and then the senior turned on the jets for a 34-yard score.
West Salem answered with a long drive that was capped by a fourth-and-12 play where Smith scrambled out of trouble and then fired a pass to the near corner of the end zone that was hauled in by Brady Redinger an eyelash before he was blasted off the field.
"We had him flushed out of the pocket but what a great play by a great quarterback and a great catch when we could've gotten the ball back with the lead and heading the other direction," said Singler, whose team had won the last three meetings against West Salem.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry