No playoff spot was going to be secured by Friday’s outcome between top-ranked West Linn and No. 3 South Medford, but both teams certainly played as if that was the case.
In an elite early season showdown, the Lions and visiting Panthers waged a top-notch tug of war before West Linn was able to generate a go-ahead score with about six minutes remaining and hold on for a 21-14 triumph at West Linn High.
“We just went into the game saying we’re not going to look at the scoreboard,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "We’re going to go out and play hard and with a lot of effort, and (we) did. (We) gave tremendous effort the whole game.”
West Linn head coach Chris Miller came out of the game equally pleased with the quality of play in a ballyhooed contest that lived up to its billing.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Bill Singler and his kids, and South Medford is a first-class program,” said the former NFL and Oregon quarterback. “It was a good high school football competition and fun football game to be a part of. Those kids out there were playing hard and they left everything out there. It was a great battle.”
And it was one that came down to the Lions (2-0) being able to march 96 yards and tally the go-ahead score with 5:52 to play on a fourth-down conversion from junior quarterback Ethan Long to senior receiver Qawi Ntsasa, who got enough clearance behind Chase Cota for an 18-yard score in the back of the end zone.
It was the same fourth-down play West Linn used to take a 14-7 lead in the third quarter when Long found Ntsasa for 14 yards after eluding Kaleb Franklin for a sliding catch.
“They made a few more plays than we did, I’ll be very honest about it,” said Singler. “We’ll just go back and look at the tape and solidify some things and move forward.”
For the Lions, those slight moments proved to be the difference on this night as they found the Panthers (1-1) tough to shake.
“We had the right calls (on the fourth-down plays) and we caught them in the coverage we wanted,” said Miller. “The guys up front protected really well against the blitz and my quarterback did a heck of a job standing in there and making the throw.”
Long completed 24 of 35 passes for 297 yards, three touchdowns and one interception by Josiah Johnson in the second quarter. Ntsasa hauled in nine passes for 115 yards and two scores as West Linn racked up most of its 374 yards in the second half.
Despite having to practice indoors six times in the past two weeks, South Medford’s offense still was able to generate some success against the stout West Linn defense.
Senior quarterback Robbie Patterson completed 17 of 27 passes for 206 yards and one interception by Ntsasa in the third quarter after some miscommunication on a route by Cota, who finished with two catches for 25 yards.
Senior Jaalen Owens hauled in five passes for 145 yards, including a 75-yard game-tying TD in the first quarter, while Jaylin Parnell rushed 18 times for 52 yards and a 1-yard TD plunge that tied the game at 14-all with 1:43 to go in the third quarter.
“Defensively, we were way ahead of the offense,” said Singler. “I think being indoors hampered us with that but so did their defense. I know that’s a top-rated defense that we went up against and we just couldn’t find our rhythm.”
Defending Class 6A state champion West Linn proved its worth on an impressive opening drive ultimately capped by an 11-yard scoring strike from Long to 6-foot-6 tight end Keishon Dawkins on third down.
Undaunted, South Medford answered emphatically less than a minute later when Patterson hit Owens in stride down the left sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
Any offensive momentum, however, was negated as both teams came up with clutch defensive efforts for the rest of the half.
Parnell recovered a fumble by tailback Ahmir McGee in the first quarter, but the Panthers couldn’t capitalize.
West Linn had a potential scoring drive snuffed out at the end of the quarter when Parnell stopped McGee on a third-and-goal at the 2-yard line and fellow linebacker Trent Snyder stuffed Long on a rollout keeper at the 1 to start the second quarter. Johnson added his interception midway through the second quarter.
“It was tough sledding for both teams,” said Singler. “I thought both teams played really good defense after that first series. It was like a heavyweight fight where you’re trading punches but it’s hard to throw a knockout punch.”
“I wish we could’ve done some stuff with the turnovers we got,” he added. “They were very physical up front and caused us some problems.”
The Panthers also had to play the final three quarters without three-year starting center Brandon Ditty, who injured his left hand and was replaced admirably by Daniel Shenk.
Two fourth-down conversions on West Linn’s opening drive of the third quarter allowed the Lions to take a 14-7 edge, but South Medford again countered with an 80-yard drive of its own built on the running of Parnell, scrambling of Patterson and a couple short passes to Franklin, who caught six balls for 20 yards.
South Medford later took over near midfield but couldn’t make any headway before giving way to the Lions, who drove the length of the field behind a key first-down, 54-yard reception by James Marshall to quickly advance from its own 4.
The Panthers' ensuing drive was negated and they opted to punt the ball away but never got it back as West Linn ran out the final 3½ minutes.
“There’s no panic, obviously, for us,” said Singler. “There’s a lot of good feelings how tough we played on the road for a second week in a row in Portland against a top team. A lot of good can be taken away from this.”
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry