BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — RUSSIAVILLE — Challenged by a game Mississinewa squad, Western’s football team responded with another big victory Friday night.
On the heels of important Mid-Indiana Conference wins against league heavyweights Hamilton Heights and Cass that earned Western a share of the league title, the Panthers once again dug in when the stakes were even higher. The Panthers shook free from a 21-all tie early in the third quarter and kept putting scores up en route to a 41-28 victory over the Indians in the first round of play in Class 3A Sectional 28.
Western coach Nate Andrews said he liked “the perseverance, even when we didn’t play very well at all, we found ways. The growth that I saw in the kids during the game was good.
“I’m talking about the things that they learned over the course of the game — football things, toughness things, mental things ... that are going to help us be a better team.”
That growth will be tested again next week when No. 8-ranked Western (9-1) plays No. 6 West Lafayette, which crushed Delta 50-12. West Lafayette will host the semifinal round game.
Mississinewa (6-4) was down 21-7 in the second quarter but kept chipping away to tie the game at 21-all on the second play of the second half. Ole Miss running back Blake Dailey ripped off a 67-yard run to knot the game with 11:03 left in the third quarter.
Western got a big return from Christian Glenn to start its next offensive possession at the Mississinewa 40 and ran the ball 10 straight times, ending with a one-yard scoring plunge by quarterback Drew Bellus to take the lead again.
Mississinewa drove to the Western 33 on its next possession but the Panthers pounced on a fumble — the third fumble taken by the Western defense — and made the most of it. Two plays later, Ben Lenahan exploded through the line and found himself quickly in the clear to score a 69-yard TD for a 35-21 Western lead.
Lenahan scored again on a 56-yard TD two possessions later. That run came on a fourth-and one situation where again he punched through the line and found open space as soon as he was through the scrum. Western led 41-21 at that point with 3:50 left in the game and the Panthers were in position to seal the game.
“It was tough sledding, though,” Andrews said of Western’s ground game. “They’ve got some big boys in the middle, and it’s tough when [the running game] is our offense too. But [assistant] coach [Marvin] Boswell did a good job sticking with the plan and finding a couple soft spots late.”
Lenahan ran for 219 yards on 23 carries. Bellus added 82 yards and three TDs, and Min Park ran for 51 yards and another score as Western amassed 355 yards on the ground.
“We knew coming in that they’re a fantastic team at running the football,” Mississinewa coach Curt Funk said. “They get three, four yards a pop and then you try to make adjustments to stop that and if they hit a crease on you, it’s gone, and they did that a couple times.”
Mississinewa back Dailey ran 19 times for 181 yards and two scores, and quarterback Hontz McCarty connected on seven of 15 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. The Indians showed big-play capability with speed in the backfield and at receiver, but Western came up with big plays on some of McCarty’s eight incompletions.
Late in the first half, Mississinewa turned the ball over on downs when McCarty couldn’t connect with a receiver on fourth down at the Western 35, and in the second half with Western leading 35-21, Western forced a punt when a deep ball by McCarty was well defensed for an incomplete pass on third down. Western also got its hands on three more passes that fell incomplete.
“I thought their defensive backs were the best we’ve seen all year,” Funk said. “They did an outstanding job of pressing us, pressing our receivers and staying with our receivers step-by-step. We knew we were going to get pressed. We thought we’d be able to get off the press and maybe get behind them and Western did a great job and their DBs did a great job.”
Western has beaten Ole Miss in sectional play four straight years.