By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
---- — Western rocked Northwestern with a 24-point explosion in the third quarter and went on to take a 30-14 win in Mid-Indiana Conference football play Friday night on the Tigers’ field.
The Panthers trailed 14-0 at halftime before dominating the third quarter.
“Coach [Nate Andrews] came into the locker room and told us that we had to keep our heads up, we couldn’t get down on ourselves, because we knew that we didn’t play our best half of football,” Western two-way standout Ben Lenahan said. “We knew if we came back out and gave it our all, we’d get the W. That’s what we thought. The coaching staff did a great job.”
Western improved to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in league play while Northwestern dropped to 3-1 and 1-1. Defending champion Hamilton Heights, Western and Peru share the league lead.
Northwestern out-gained Western 172-93 in the first half of the rivalry game, which drew a big crowd. The Tigers scored on their first two drives to build a 14-0 lead. The Panthers turned the tables in the second half, out-gaining the Tigers 183-82.
“Very proud of the players and the staff for making the correct adjustments,” Andrews said.
The Panthers attacked with a relentless ground game, which was clicking on all cylinders in the second half. Lenahan finished with 118 yards on 20 rushing attempts, Ryan Alexander had 112 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, and Christian Glenn had 21 yards and a TD on three carries.
“Our offensive line, I wouldn’t trade those guys for anything,” Lenahan said. “The second half, they did the best job that I’ve ever seen. All credit goes to them. I can’t thank them enough.”
The Panthers set the tone for the second half with a defensive play. The Tigers received the opening kick and started at their own 21, but a holding call on a passing play left them facing second-and-24 from their own 7. Defensive end Corey Hinkle broke free to sack Tiger QB Trey Richmond in the end zone for a safety. Defensive end Drew Bellus also had pressure on the play.
“It was a huge spark,” Lenahan said. “We knew we needed to get something going, either on offense or defense. Our two defensive ends came out and took him down.That was definitely a momentum swing right there. From there, we just kept going.”
Western followed with a quick scoring drive, going 55 yards in eight plays to draw within 14-9 at 7:58 of the third quarter. The Panthers kept the ball on the ground throughout the drive with Alexander scoring on a 3-yard run.
When Northwestern went three-and-out on its next series, Western clearly had momentum, and the Panthers added to with another eight-play scoring drive. The Panthers once again attacked with a heavy dose of power running. Glenn capped the 48-yard drive with a nifty 13-yard score and Alexander added a two-point run, putting Western up 17-14 at 3:33 of the third quarter.
Western followed with the knockout punch.
The Tigers coughed up a fumble five plays into their next series, and Alexander ripped off a 32-yard TD run. Zac Simpson’s kick made it 24-14 with 1:27 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers kept the 24-14 lead until deep in the fourth quarter, then tacked on the final score after Bellus sacked Richmond and forced a fumble. The Panthers recovered on the doorstep of the end zone and Alexander scored on a 3-yard run.
Northwestern coach John Hendryx pointed to the start of the second half as where it all went awry for his squad.
“The two biggest plays of the game happened back to back — the holding penalty that got us deep, then the safety. And then it just snowballed,” Hendryx said. “I told the kids after the game, there wasn’t much fancy. We got out-blocked, we missed a lot of tackles, and we turned the ball over way too much. [The Tigers finished with six turnovers.] Very, very frustrating. I give [the Panthers] credit, they played hard, but we didn’t do much to help ourselves.”
Hendryx noted field position hampered his squad throughout the second half. The Panthers’ kickoff unit routinely pinned the Tigers deep.
Richmond finished 19 of 32 passing for 185 yards with one TD and two interceptions for the Tigers. Michael Plummer had 76 yards and a TD on 21 rushing attempts, but the Panthers had him under wraps in the second half.
“Give [the Tigers] all the credit — they had us on our heels completely in the first half with great play calling,” Andrews said. “They were mixing it up. At the same time, they were in complete rhythm. It was one of those things where it didn’t matter what we were in, they were going to dial it up.”
Andrews noted the Panthers finished the opening half on a decent note, forcing turnovers on the Tigers’ final three drives before halftime.
“Our kids were able to settle down in the second half. ... Certainly, I don’t think [the Tigers] were in the rhythm they were in in the first half, but I think we also settled down and started to settle in some of our zones that helped,” he said.
Jake Stout had a big game for the Panther defense, picking off two passes.