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Western running back Hayden Shepherd looks to muscle through Tipton’s defense during Friday night’s game at Russiaville. Shepherd ran for 129 yards on 31 carries to help the Panthers take a 14-7 win in a battle for the Hoosier Conference’s East Division title.

RUSSIAVILLE — The Eastern half of the Hoosier Conference was on the line Friday night when Tipton’s football team visited Western. Each team was 3-0 in division play, making Friday’s game an HC East title tilt.

Western struck first, scoring on its first possession, and made Class 2A No. 4-ranked Tipton chase. The Blue Devils caught Western once, but the Panthers didn’t let the Blue Devils back in the end zone the rest of the night and Western held on for a tense 14-7 victory. Western improved to 6-2 overall and won the division, dealing Tipton (7-1) its first loss of the season.

“I’m just really proud of our kids’ effort,” Western coach Alex Stewart said. “We played a great Tipton team and it was a defensive battle, and our defense really played well and was able to hold them to seven points, which is great considering they’ve got an offense that was averaging I think 38 points coming into this. Our defensive effort was really, really great. Offensively, I felt like we were able to grind out the game with our running game.”

Western pounded Tipton on the ground. Panther running back Hayden Shepherd ran 31 times for 129 yards. Quarterback Dylan Bryant ran 25 times for 89 yards and two TDs. Western ran for 243 yards and 17 first downs.

“Hayden Shepherd had an awesome night for us, he really ran extremely hard,” Stewart said. “Dylan Bryant’s good as always. Garret Lupoi had a couple big runs for us. Overall our offensive line played well, it was just a good team victory.”

A first down Western prevented Tipton from getting was as big as any play the Panthers made when they had the ball.

Clinging to a 14-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, Tipton took possession on a short field — at the Western 38 — after a punt. The Blue Devils picked up a first down on a pass interference penalty to reach Western’s 23. From there Western held Tipton to seven yards over three running plays. With opportunities hard to come by, Tipton elected to go for it on fourth down. A throw for first-down yardage went incomplete and the Panthers took over on downs.

“We had a chance to tie it up down there and we didn’t punch it in,” Tipton coach Aaron Tolle said. “We’ve struggled in the red zone a little bit and it came back and bit us [Friday] night. In a game like this, you get inside the 20, you’ve got to put points on the board and we didn’t do it.”

Western then took over possession with 8:45 left and kept the ball the rest of the game. Tipton nearly stopped Western’s slow advance with 1:15 left and Western facing fourth down on the Tipton 25, but the Panthers pulled off a double handoff running play and Lupoi ripped off a 13-yard run for the game’s final first down.

With that, Western had the game, and the HC East championship. Western will visit Class 3A No. 1 West Lafayette next Friday for the conference title game.

“You know, it’s huge. Western’s never won the East Division [outright] in the Hoosier Conference before. We’ve never had the opportunity to go play for a conference championship,” Stewart said. “It’s exciting for our kids, it’s exciting for our program, and we sealed up our fifth straight winning season.”

Western struck first, marching 71 yards in 16 plays — all on the ground — capped by quarterback Bryant’s nine-yard TD run. That scoring play put the Panthers up 7-0 and finished with 1:29 left in the first period. The Panthers had chewed up the bulk of the quarter.

Tipton answered near the end of the second quarter, taking advantage of a short field, starting at the Panther 37 after a short punt. The Blue Devils scored seven plays later on a three yard TD run by Eli Carter and the game was tied at 7-all with 1:17 left in the half.

The Panthers re-took the lead in the third quarter when a 14-play, 54-yard drive yielded a one-yard TD plunge by Bryant to put Western up 14-7 with 2:42 left in the quarter.

Stewart said the Blue Devils won the field position battle, but Western’s defense held firm, and that Western’s offense wore Tipton down. Not seeing much of the ball was frustrating for Tipton.

“That offense is a perfect offense for these conditions and they just executed really, really well,” Tolle said of Western. “They didn’t make many mistakes and they’re just extremely hard to get off the field.”

Carter had 64 yards on 17 carries to lead Tipton. The Blue Devil passing game struggled as quarterback Vince Hoover was just 3 for 12 with an interception when a receiver fell on a route.

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