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Panthers facing stiff test in Barlow

South Medford has seen its share of offensive schemes this football season, from spread attacks to compact formations and fly-based misdirection.

The eighth-ranked Panthers will rely on those experiences Friday night when they line up against Barlow and the state's leading rusher, Malcolm Johnson, in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Spiegelberg Stadium.

Through 10 games, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder has rushed for 2,284 yards and 21 touchdowns on 326 carries to help the Bruins land the No. 4 seed from the Mt. Hood Conference.

In comparison, no team in the Southwest Conference rushed for that many yards this season, and Johnson's total is more than the combined rushing yards for both Medford high schools in 2007 (by 386 yards).

"They're a run team first, second and third, and throw just enough to keep your attention," South Medford coach Bill Singler says of Barlow.

In other playoff openers involving SWC teams, Roseburg plays host to Lincoln and Grants Pass is at Tigard. League champion Sheldon has a bye this week.

The lone Southern Sky Conference team in action this week is No. 3 seed Klamath Union, which plays host to Silverton. Ashland and Crater each have a bye this week.

The Bruins (5-5, 4-3 Mt. Hood) employ a double-wing offensive attack similar to the one used by Wilson, which the Panthers beat 28-14 on Sept. 28. Barlow's plan is to get as many blockers at the point of attack as possible, and let Johnson do his work.

"You've got to be ready to meet that physicalness that they bring," Singler says of Barlow's run game. "If you don't, they can create running lanes for

(Johnson). And once he gets through a seam, he has (Grants Pass' Criss) Bowen speed; he'll take it outside up the sideline and he's gone."

Johnson is coming off a sensational effort in a 41-17 win over Reynolds that allowed Barlow to notch its fifth straight berth in the state playoffs. The junior running back carried 38 times for 334 yards and five TDs in that game, and even that wasn't his best outing of the season. Against Sandy on Sept. 21, Johnson rushed for a school-record 379 yards and six scores on 29 carries.

"We feel like we've played against some good backs in our league that are comparable (to Johnson)," says Singler, "but we also understand he is the leading rusher in the state so you've got to give him the respect he deserves and their offense the credit for giving him the opportunity to gain that many yards."

Barlow senior wide receiver Eric Capelle has been the beneficiary of teams focusing solely on the run game, and his speed and athleticism can lead to big plays. Capelle scored on an 83-yard kickoff return and 44-yard run against David Douglas earlier this season, and joined Johnson as part of Barlow's 400-meter relay team that took third at state last year.

"We still have a job to do and we've still got to focus on where our assignments are," says South linebacker D.J. Titus on not focusing solely on Johnson. "I know we're all looking forward to hitting somebody, but we've still got to play smart."

Fullback Jordan Raney is also a key component to the Barlow ground game, which like Wilson or Sunset, aims to control the clock and wear teams down.

"We'd like to get ahead of them if we can," says Singler. "The best scenario is if they're playing catchup and maybe have to do some things out of character."

Defensively, the Bruins are aggressive to the football and, with Capelle and Johnson in the secondary, have the skill to utilize man-to-man coverage.

The Panthers' hopes will be to fence in Johnson on defense and maintain the offensive balance they've had in recent weeks running the ball with Patrick Thibeault and passing with A.J. Palazzolo and Mitch and E.J. Singler.

Thibeault is averaging 211 yards on the ground the past three games, while Palazzolo ranks second in the state in passing (2,348 yards), Mitch Singler second in receiving (53 catches for 1,094 yards) and E.J. Singler not far behind (53 for 816).

Another key will be how the Panthers (7-2, 4-1 SWC) respond to being back in the playoffs for the first time since 2005, when South lost to Sprague 14-7 in double overtime. Driving rain and muddy field conditions forced a sloppy game that saw a combined seven turnovers and no points scored through 48 minutes of regulation play in Salem.

"I know it's going to be a lot more physical than it has been, but we have a lot of guys that will match up to it so I'm not too worried about that," Titus says of his playoff expectations.

LINCOLN AT ROSEBURG — Lincoln's speed and finesse offer quite a contrast to the brute strength of a Roseburg team that has done just enough to claim the No. 3 seed out of the SWC.

Led by quarterback Jake Johnson and tailback Jordan Radford, the Indians (5-4, 3-2 SWC) won all three of their league contests by an average of five points, so the tense atmosphere of the playoffs won't be anything new.

Lincoln (4-5, 2-2), the No. 3 seed from the PIL, boasts one of the state's top playmakers in wide receiver Jordan Polk. The 5-foot-8 track star leads the state in receiving yardage and is a threat to take it to the house anytime he touches the ball.

Jayson Hobby guides the Cardinals' shotgun-based spread attack, while 6-5, 270-pound lineman Ethan Johnson — who has committed to play next year at Notre Dame — keys the defense.

GRANTS PASS AT TIGARD — This game features teams apparently heading in opposite directions, with Grants Pass cooling off dramatically after a 7-0 start and Tigard seemingly getting its second wind heading into the Class 6A playoffs.

The teams have two common opponents in Sheldon and Forest Grove, and the No. 2 seed from the Pacific Conference fared a little better in each tilt. Tigard (4-4, 4-1 Pacific) lost 17-14 to Sheldon and beat Forest Grove 55-34, while the Cavemen (7-3, 2-3 SWC) beat Forest Grove 19-14 and lost to Sheldon 42-7.

Grants Pass' offensive attack has slowed in recent weeks, with quarterback Zach Morgan coming off his worst outing of the season. Morgan completed only 9 of 25 passes for 60 yards with two interceptions and one TD in a 24-20 loss to Roseburg that dropped GP to the No. 4 spot.

Bowen returned to form from an ankle injury and rushed for 144 yards and a score last week, so look for GP to return to the ground in order to set up better play-action possibilities for Morgan and standout receivers Buddy Saxon and Dee Wiersma.

Tigard leads the state in rushing at about 310 yards per game thanks to the exploits of standout tailback Scott Grady, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and is averaging about 8 yards per carry.

SILVERTON AT KLAMATH UNION — Klamath Union (6-4, 2-2 SSC) escaped a major meltdown last week with a 48-6 win over Mazama to secure the conference's No. 3 seed to the Class 5A playoffs.

Silverton (5-5, 4-3) is the No. 4 seed from the Mid-Willamette Conference, and enters the playoffs on a four-game winning streak — one being a 7-6 win over ninth-ranked Corvallis.

The Silver Foxes, who boast one of the state's top defenses at the 5A level, also lost by only a touchdown to 10th-ranked Dallas.

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

D.J. Titus