South Medford's I-5 tour continues this week with a stop in Portland, making this the third time in four weeks that the fourth-ranked Panthers have hit the road in search of top-flight competition.

South Medford's I-5 tour continues this week with a stop in Portland, making this the third time in four weeks that the fourth-ranked Panthers have hit the road in search of top-flight competition.

The last time South Medford traveled north, it returned with a resounding, 17-0 win over Evergreen High in Vancouver, Wash.

As with Evergreen and last week's foe Foothill High of Redding, Calif., the Panthers (3-1) will be facing yet another team that likes to use the spread offense in Lincoln High (3-1), but the Cardinals have their own take on the offensive scheme.

"We haven't really seen a spread offense, yet, as we're going to see this week," says South Medford coach Bill Singler of tonight's game at Lincoln. "Even Evergreen wasn't this spread."

With a bevy of athletes to call upon, the Cardinals often get into three-, four- and sometimes five-receiver sets to spread out the defense. They've also been known to use direct snaps to the tailback to keep teams honest.

All facets have made it a headache to line up against Chad Carlson's Cardinals the past few years, and this season is no different.

"They do present a lot of challenges, but it's going to be good for us," says Singler. "Win, lose or draw — and we want to go up with the idea to win to get back on track — it's still going to be a great opportunity for us to get better as a football team."

Despite the loss of big-play threat Jordan Polk to the University of Washington, Lincoln has remained a fixture in and around the top-10 rankings in Class 6A this season. The Cardinals' lone loss came last week in a 40-7 outing against third-ranked Jesuit.

Similarly, the Panthers are coming off their lone loss of the season after a blocked 30-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds allowed Foothill to escape with a 15-13 win on its home field.

Needless to say, both teams will be primed to make things right tonight.

"We just shot ourselves in the foot (against Foothill)," says Singler. "When you have five turnovers, you're not going to win the ballgame. I was surprised we stayed that close. That's a credit to our defense."

Lincoln is led by quarterback Blake Rudolph, who was the Cardinals' starter through two games last year before being replaced by then-senior Jayson Hobby. Rudolph has since reclaimed his position and has a dynamic target in wide receiver DeAndre Taylor, who came down with Lincoln's lone touchdown last week against Jesuit on a jump ball in the end zone.

"He made a heckuva catch against Jesuit, going way up to get that thing," says Singler of Taylor. "He's very good, and they really try to get the ball to him."

Ryan Lacey is a steady complement as a slot receiver, while running back Nate Kirkpatrick plays a key role with his ability to slip through defensive gaps for big gains.

Even with Polk looming large last year when Lincoln came south and beat North Medford 34-21, Kirkpatrick was a needle in the Tornado's side with 92 yards on 16 carries and a pair of receptions for 12 yards. Taylor had 61 yards on four catches in that game, while Polk hauled in seven for 219 with three TDs.

As daunting of a task as it will be to slow down Lincoln, Singler believes his defense is up to the task after facing similar tests through four weeks. The Panthers are allowing an average of 234 yards per game and only about nine points despite going against some explosive attacks.

"Our defense has really played well this year," says Singler. "They have a different temperament, a different attitude this year."

Offensively, the Panthers are still striving for consistency. South has looked brilliant at times, averaging almost 328 yards and 27 points thus far, but it also has struggled to sustain drives and is averaging almost two turnovers per game.

"We just haven't found it, yet," says Singler. "We've found it at times. Our most consistent drive last week was the last drive. I think the kids understood the urgency of it and their focus was better, and our execution was a heckuva lot better than it was the whole game. We need more of that."

South Medford tailback Patrick Thibeault is third in the Southwest Conference with 303 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 84 carries, while junior quarterback Josh Milhollin has passed for 799 yards and six scores but is completing only 45 percent of his attempts to go with five interceptions.

On the receiving end, Mitch Singler leads the SWC with 347 yards on 13 catches and cousin E.J. Singler isn't far behind with 212 yards on 15 receptions.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com