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When your football program entered the season with a combined two wins in their previous two seasons, any win is a good win.
While the outlook has certainly changed for North Medford as this 2013 season has progressed, that adage still rang true Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.
In a game with little rhythm or emotion, the No. 8-ranked Black Tornado still managed to keep its unbeaten streak alive in Southwest Conference play, as well as secure the program's first winning season since 2005, with a 34-7 win over South Eugene.
Junior quarterback Troy Fowler completed 12 of 18 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns — two to Tristen Holmes — and Nick Janakes ran the ball 25 times for 166 yards and one score to pace the first-place Black Tornado (6-1, 5-0 SWC).
Micah Brown also scored on his first carry of the season — a 17-yard TD capped with an athletic, twisting dive into the end zone — and finished with 40 yards on six carries for North Medford, which held the Axemen to 169 yards of total offense.
"It wasn't a pretty game but I think you have to win those kind of games," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell of his team's sixth straight victory. "I thought (South Eugene) played pretty hard because they're desperate right now trying to get a win, and we just weren't in sync ourselves all night long."
"I want our kids to feel good about any win, so we'll take this," added the second-year coach, "but we can't play like this next week. We know that and I'm sure every one of our kids knows that."
That "next week" encounter just happens to be the annual Black and Blue Game, pitting rivals North Medford and South Medford against each other for what will be the 28th time. The Black Tornado leads the series 14-13, but the Panthers (2-5, 2-3) have won the last six meetings.
It's safe to say next Friday's clash was a little too tempting for North Medford to not look forward to instead of gearing all its energy toward the Axemen (2-5, 0-5).
"I think we were trying to do a little too much at first and had a lot of stuff on our minds because we kinda just wanted to get past this game," said Fowler, "but the second half we just settled down and went back to throwing it around and giving them a nice dose of Nick and Micah (Brown)."
Playing into the lack of rhythm were several costly penalties assessed against the Black Tornado, especially in the first half. North Medford was flagged seven times overall for 90 yards, but had a 30-yard TD pass from Fowler to Holmes taken away on its second play from scrimmage and a wild 60-yard TD run by Janakes off a short pass by Fowler also wiped off in the second quarter.
"A lot of things didn't go our way in the very beginning, with two touchdowns called back," said Fowler. "We were pretty sloppy tonight. We need to get a lot better to play a really good South Medford team."
The Black Tornado amassed 420 yards of total offense, with 255 of it coming on the ground — much to Mitchell's delight.
"If there was a positive, it's that they really loaded up for the pass and got in our face and we showed that we can run the football in that situation," said the coach. "We haven't done that lately as well as we need to so I feel good about that."
Janakes, the SWC's second-leading rusher, felt pretty good about it as well.
"I was a little angry because the past couple games I haven't been getting the yards I've been wanting," said Janakes. "That's my fault, that's not on anyone else. That's me making bad reads and bad cuts, but I think I corrected it this week in practice with (running backs coach Dave Patstone) and my line again tonight was fantastic."
North Medford started off on the right foot when linebacker Edmund Polataivao forced a fumble that was recovered by Calvinn Casaday to halt South Eugene's opening drive and give the Tornado possession with 47 yards to the end zone. But every big run by Janakes was followed by a key penalty that marched North Medford back, and Preston Chachere's 31-yard field goal sailed wide left to deny an early lead.
It was that kind of night for both teams as each struggled to execute, with Brown finally breaking the scoreless tilt with a shifty 17-yard scamper to pay dirt with 5:40 to go in the first quarter.
North Medford took a 14-0 lead into halftime when Fowler connected with Holmes for a 16-yard score with 29.5 seconds left in the second quarter. When the Tornado took the opening drive of the second half 55 yards — capped by Janakes' 3-yard plunge — the lead was 21-0 and appeared secure against the young Axemen.
South Eugene was able to mount one scoring drive — traveling 84 yards in 13 plays with a 5-yard hookup from Ray Roundtree to Quinn Cota — but even that involved two near interceptions by Jared Evans and one by Brown as each pass glanced off their hands.
That score trimmed South Eugene's deficit to 21-7 but North Medford answered with its own 75-yard drive, highlighted by a 41-yard TD pass to a wide-open Eugene Ellis. The extra point caromed off the left goal post to make it 27-7.
Fowler again found Holmes one series later for a 13-yard TD on a play when the receiver caught the ball at the same time as defensive back Maliek Inocencio but wrestled it away on the corner fade.
"They're a solid team but we can play with them, there's no doubt in my mind," said South Eugene head coach Chris Miller. "We don't know how to win, or make plays when they're there."
South Eugene's primary weapon was receiver Conner Still, who used the middle of the field for 70 yards on five catches. Tailback Quinn Cota was limited to 37 yards on 13 carries and quarterback Ray Roundtree was 10-for-16 for 102 yards before leaving due to injury midway through the fourth quarter.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry