EUGENE — South Medford did it again.
For the second straight season, the Panthers knocked Sheldon from the ranks of the unbeaten, delivering a humbling blow to the Irish and taking command of the Southwest Conference football standings with one week to go in the regular season.
Friday night’s final was 31-14, with visiting South Medford playing from ahead after scoring on its first drive of the game.
With the win, the 7-1 and fifth-ranked Panthers improved to 5-0 in conference play and secured at least a share of their second straight SWC championship. The title will be theirs alone with a win next week against South Eugene.
The top-ranked Irish dropped to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play. They finish next Friday at Grants Pass (6-2, 4-1), whose only league loss is also to South Medford.
“We just did not respond to the adversity we faced and we ran into a very good football team,” Sheldon coach Josh Line said. “We weren’t under the impression we were going to have an easy night and so hopefully this gives us an opportunity to learn some lessons as a team, and brings us closer together and makes us appreciate the little things more, and practice a little harder and raise our level of expectations.”
The Irish were also 7-0 last season before losing 41-20 to the Panthers in Medford behind 383 yards passing and four touchdowns from quarterback Robbie Patterson.
This time, South Medford leaned on its ground game, as senior running back Jaylin Parnell rushed 33 times for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
The reigning SWC defensive player of the year also had an interception return for a touchdown, part of an overall defensive effort by the Panthers that held the Irish to 31 points below their season average.
Afterward, his coach, Bill Singler, called Parnell “the most underrated player in the state.”
South Medford didn’t shy away from the role of underdog.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to win tonight,” Parnell said. “We just came in with that chip on our shoulder. I mean, we just wanted it so bad. I think we gave it our all tonight. We came out and played as hard as we could.”
Parnell rushed seven times for 59 yards on South Medford’s opening drive, and capped it off with a 23-yard scoring run to put the Panthers up 7-0.
A 33-yard field goal by Jaalen Owens made 10-0 in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the Irish struggled on offense the entire first half, unable to sustain drives or capitalize on turnovers. They got on the scoreboard midway through the second quarter when quarterback Michael Johnson connected with receiver Jack Folsum on a 66-yard pass play that made it 10-7 going into halftime despite Sheldon being outgained 209-102.
Parnell put the Panthers up 17-7 early in the third quarter when he picked off Johnson in front of the Sheldon bench and returned the interception 40 yards for the touchdown, putting his shoulder down and delivering a blow that flattened Johnson near the goal line as the 6-foot-3, 195-pound quarterback attempted to make a tackle.
“We wanted to set the tone and let them know we’re fired up and ready to play,” Parnell said.
A 12-yard TD pass to Owens and an 11-yard scoring run by Parnell put South Medford up 31-7 with 11:08 to play.
“We had a couple of opportunities where we could’ve turned the tide,” Line said. “That’s the thing, when you’re playing a really good team it’s just a slim margin, and with their running game, they just weathered the storm and pounded us and we never got back into any kind of rhythm.”
Johnson, the dual-threat star who had passed or rushed for 1,370 and 24 TDs in six games, threw for 201 yards on 12 of 25 passing, and was held to 33 yards rushing on 11 carries.
“All we talked about is trying to keep him contained, don’t lose the edge, and keep playing,” Singler said. “You can’t lose sight of him. ... I thought we did a pretty damn good job with him.”
Johnson led the Irish on a scoring drive late in the fourth quarter that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to receiver Patrick Herbert, but it was too little too late.
“To go on the road and beat Sheldon at the end of the year is pretty pleasing,” Singler said. “It was a great win.”