Breaking in a new quarterback and facing an inexperienced opponent at home, South Medford needed a quick start in its season opener.

Breaking in a new quarterback and facing an inexperienced opponent at home, South Medford needed a quick start in its season opener.

The Panthers got more than they bargained for.

South opened the game with a four-play, 80-yard drive then returned a fumble 27 yards on the ensuing kickoff for a 14-0 lead just 1:21 into the game. The physical Panthers went on to overwhelm West Salem 35-6.

"That was really important," South Medford coach Bill Singler said of his team's two quick scores. "We haven't started like that in a game since I've been coach. All of the sudden, they are having to play from behind."

That recipe spelled trouble for the Titans, who reached the semifinals of the state playoffs last season but graduated six players who were mentioned on the Class 6A all-state list.

South Medford's Patrick Thibeault rushed 22 times for 93 yards and three touchdowns and junior quarterback Josh Milhollin was 10-of-18 passing for 188 yards and a touchdown in his first start.

Thibeault scored from 13 yards out on the game's opening possession and Cameron Kynard returned the West Salem fumble on a kickoff for another score.

From there, South turned to its dominant defense, which held the Titans scoreless for three quarters and limited them to 193 yards of total offense.

"We have lots of players who can play a lot of different positions," South linebacker E.J. Singler said. "We're a group that likes to run around the field and hit people."

E.J. Singler also had four receptions for 50 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown reception from Milhollin in the second quarter. Mitch Singler hauled in four passes for 125 yards. He helped set up the opening score with a 63-yard reception.

"There's no question, they are a good football team," West Salem coach Shawn Stanley said. "They've got a ton of weapons, tons of guys to throw it to, and they can pound it at you. They are a tough matchup. I'm glad we aren't going to play South Medford every Friday night."

West Salem returned just three players on defense and one on offense from last year's squad that finished 10-2 and won the Central Valley Conference.

That showed, especially early, as mistakes hurt the Titans. After the fumble, West Salem orchestrated a solid drive inside the Panthers' 10-yard line only to have it stall and end with a botched field goal attempt due to a poor snap.

The drive was West Salem's best scoring opportunity until late in the fourth quarter when quarterback Brett Smith found wide receiver Xavier Frantilla for a 56-yard pass play. Smith later scored from 1 yard out to make it 28-7.

Smith, a sophomore, finished 12-of-24 passing for 116 yards. He was intercepted once, in the third quarter by Kynard, which led to a 1-yard Thibeault touchdown. Salvador Herrera finished as West Salem's leader on the ground with 46 yards rushing on 19 attempts but he was bottled up for the majority of the contest.

"I was pleased with what we set out to do and that was capture the line of scrimmage," coach Singler said. "I thought we were the more physical team."

Offensively, Milhollin was steady in his first start. He finished with one interception off a pass that was intended for E.J. Singler but tipped in the air. And, as expected, he was out of sync at times with his receivers. But he drew the admiration of his teammates in his first start by helping guide an offense that totaled 377 yards.

"Josh played a good game in my mind," E.J. Singler said. "He's a new guy, and I thought he played well. He's got room for improvement but he's going to make those adjustments."

Said Milhollin: "I think I did all right for a first start on varsity. Coming up to varsity and having that performance, it's a great confidence booster."

And how about that defense?

"Our defense is amazing," Milhollin said. "They fly around. They bring intensity. It's going to be a good year."

It started that way Friday night.

Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com