South Medford didn’t have the same bounce in its step Friday as a week ago against crosstown rival North Medford, but what the Panthers did have was senior leadership to carry them over the top.

Facing another physical battle against visiting Grants Pass, No. 5-ranked South Medford built a 20-0 lead in the second quarter but wasn’t able to put the contest away for a 40-21 win until last year’s Southwest Conference players of the year proved their worth yet again.

After the Cavemen cut their deficit to 20-14 with 10 minutes to play, South Medford seniors Robbie Patterson and Jaylin Parnell each scored touchdowns within one minute of the other to prevent any thoughts of an upset.

Patterson toted the football 68 yards for an answering TD and, three plays later, Parnell ran an interception back 43 yards for another score to build a 33-14 cushion with 7:35 remaining. Patterson shared SWC offensive player of the year honors in 2016 with Parnell, who was also the league’s defensive player of the year.

“There’s your two players of the year making plays when you need it most,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “That’s a sign of leadership. They stepped up when we needed it most.”

For Parnell, that defensive effort was only a blip on the radar for what turned into a dominant night overall. The 6-foot, 200-pound tailback/linebacker finished with five touchdowns in all, four while rushing for 118 yards on 26 carries. He had TD runs of 4 and 11 yards in the first quarter, 1 yard in the second quarter and 4 yards in the fourth.

“The offensive line did a great job tonight, those dudes blocked their hearts out,” said Parnell, who also caught four passes for 30 yards. “They gave it their all every time and really opened the holes for me, so it was a fun night.”

While it may have been fun for the Panthers (5-1, 3-0 SWC), their 14th win in the last 18 series meetings with GP was made a little more challenging thanks to some sluggish play overall contrasted by an energetic, hungry performance by the Cavemen (4-2, 2-1).

“There aren’t too many runaways if you look at the series history,” said Singler. “Even when we were winning 12 out of 13 against them, they were still tough games. It just is what it is. It’s a Medford-Grants Pass rivalry game, it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be physical and it’s going to be emotional.”

“We didn’t bring our best game tonight but yet we won it,” added the coach, “and we won it when we had to in the fourth quarter.”

Grants Pass struggled to get anything going offensively in the absence of SWC-leading rusher Vincent Washington, who was sidelined by a sprained medial-collateral ligament.

The Panthers had more touchdowns (three) than Grants Pass had first downs (two) through 1½ quarters before the Cavemen finally broke the ice with a 5-yard TD pass from Blain Hobbs to Niko Phillips, who made a nice one-handed grab on the third-and-goal play with 3:41 to go in the second quarter.

That late surge, which included a half-ending drive that was thwarted at the South 20-yard line, gave Grants Pass momentum for the second half, and after four clock-consuming drives, the Cavemen closed the gap at 20-14 on a Hobbs 3-yard pass to Tayler Phillips.

“There’s not many weaknesses on that defense,” said GP head coach John Musser. “We tried to run the football early and got nowhere, and then a couple things started sticking a little bit and we just stuck with it. I think it wore them down a little bit. We were fairly fresh and I think that was a big deal.”

What became an even bigger deal was how Patterson and Parnell answered the call for the Panthers. After a 6-yard completion to Chase Cota moved the chains, Patterson dialed up his own number and needed one stiff arm and a heart that would not be denied to alter the game’s momentum with his 68-yard scamper.

“It was just well-blocked and well-executed,” said Patterson, who completed 12 of 18 passes for 140 yards. “We got what we needed and then I broke a tackle and I saw daylight and just lit it up.”

With the Cavemen in hot pursuit, the 5-11, 195-pound QB found another gear to put South up 26-14 with 8:35 to go.

“He showed a burst of speed there,” said Singler. “His weightlifting, his running, his conditioning, his love for the game just willed him to make that run. That’s just the type of player he is.”

For Patterson, there was simply no way his run was ending shy of the end zone.

“Just don’t get caught, that’s all I was thinking,” he said. “I felt them but I was like, no, I’ve got to put this one in.”

That score barely settled in when Parnell stepped in front of a third-down pass by Hobbs and raced 43 yards to paydirt one minute later in what Musser said “broke our back, big-time.”

“I think I checked the safeties out of the right coverage and then I kind of just ended up there for it,” said Parnell, still baffled by the turn of events after the game. “I don’t think that was the right play but, you know, things work out in your favor sometimes.”

Each team scored one more time, with Tayler Phillips granted a 4-yard TD reception after an initial incomplete call was overruled and then Parnell scooting in from 4 yards for the game-ender.

Josiah Johnson hauled in five passes for 88 yards for his top output of the season for the Panthers, while Cota also rushed five times for 31 yards. For GP, Hobbs was 20-for-40 passing for 145 yards and ran 17 times for 69 yards.

“I like the way these kids fight,” Musser said of his squad. “Hey, keep battling and they’re not going to give up, we’ve just got to execute better.”

For the Panthers, Friday was more a matter of survive and advance.

“We found a way to win the game and that’s the important thing,” said Singler. “I think we’re tired mentally and physically after the last couple weeks. When you go from an emotional North Medford game and then another emotional rival game, those are two tough ones. I’m glad they’re out of the way, quite frankly.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry