RUSSIAVILLE — Possession after possession, Western and Rensselaer kept answering each other Friday night. The Hoosier Conference football squads were tied 7-all, 14-all and 21-all in the first half, then again at 35-all in the fourth quarter. Western finally got up a pair of scores with 2:01 left in the game, but Rensselaer rallied to score with 25 seconds left, then recovered an onside kick for one last attempt to tie the game.
That’s when Western came up with the final answer.
Western’s Jerry Padgett intercepted Rensselaer quarterback Tate Drone with less than 20 seconds left in the game and sealed up the game for Western. The Panthers emerged with a 49-42 victory over Rensselaer in the HC’s third-place game.
“It was a great win. It feels great to finish off the regular season and build some momentum going into the tournament,” Western coach Alex Stewart said. “We played two really tough teams the last two weeks and we were able to come out on top.
“We had a lot of guys out [Friday] night, a lot of guys got injured throughout the course, and we had to have some guys step up — guys that we don’t always expect to play — and they stepped up and played their tails off. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Western (8-1) has won four straight with wins over Cass, Northwestern, Tipton and now Rensselaer to close the regular season. Rensselaer is 5-4.
Western led 27-21 heading into the fourth quarter. The teams combined to score six touchdowns in a wild fourth quarter. Rensselaer took a 28-27 lead on a three-yard run by Dylan Kidd and Western answered less than two minutes later on a 67-yard bomb from QB Braeden Bryant to Nathaniel Liddell for a 35-28 Western lead. It was the second Bryant-to-Liddell pinpoint scoring bomb of the night.
Rensselaer knotted the game again less than a minute later for a 35-all tie setting up a shootout over the last 7:23. Western went up on a Padgett 69-yard run with 6:23 left. Then Padgett scored on a 16-yard run with 2:01 left for a two-score cushion. Rensselaer cut the gap with a passing TD with 0:25 left and recovered an onside kick to give the Bombers one last shot to tie the game again.
That’s when Padgett intercepted a deep ball down the left sideline to end the final threat.
“I was just watching the quarterback’s eyes,” Padgett said. “I just did my assignment, all 10 other guys did their assignment, covered up the pass and I just made a play.”
That settled a shootout where both teams’ offenses had the upper hand. The game had just one punt.
Padgett rushed for 312 yards and five scores. Western QB Bryant was 4 for 5 with TD passes of 44 and 67 yards to Liddell. On the other side Rensselaer gained 158 yards on the ground and 131 in the air.
“Yeah, it was tense, play after play,” said Padgett, who has rushed for more than 1,900 yards this season. “Rensselaer’s a good program. They run the ball hard, they executed very well and I thought we did as well, and we just came out on top.”
Western had nine plays of 10 yards or more.
“They’re a really good offensive team and they were four yards and a cloud of dust, and [Friday] night we were more explosive offensively and answered a little bit quicker,” Stewart said. “At the end of the day our kids up front played really well, Jerry Padgett ran really well behind his pads and made some big runs for us at times. There’s some times he was wrapped up and tackled and he just broke loose. Nathaniel Liddell stepped in and played a great game his first game back [from injury].”
Padgett scored on runs of 67 and 1 yard in the first half. Then in the second half he punched one in from four yards out, rode a huge line surge for a 69-yard score, and lastly bounced a play left for a 16-yard score on Western’s final drive.
“As a back, I try to stay patient,” Padgett said. “My offensive line, we just dominate every single game. That’s how I get all the yards I get. It starts up front and I can’t give anything else but credit to the O-line because they just dominate for me every week.”
While Western didn’t need to pass much, Bryant amassed 125 yards through the air with all four completions going to Liddell.
“Braeden Bryant’s had an outstanding year. I can’t be happier with how he’s played at the quarterback spot and I think he’s really starting to come on now that we’re heading into the tournament,” Stewart said.
Western has the bye next week and awaits the winner of Frankfort vs. Lebanon on Oct. 30.
“I think our best football is in front of us now.”