RUSSIAVILLE — The Cunninghams are sore today.

Mississinewa, which featured three Cunninghams in their backfield — quarterback Conner, running back Dustin, and wingback Garrett — was on the receiving end of a pounding by the Western defense in a Class 3A Sectional 20 opener here Friday night. The No. 7-ranked Panthers held the Indians to just 111 yards of total offense as the defending Sectional 20 champions cruised to a 37-3 win.

After a sluggish first half that had Western up 14-3, the Panther offense shifted into a higher gear in the second half, posting 23 unanswered points.

Western QB Bart Shepherd keyed the second half surge, rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns on just six totes and connecting on 2 of 2 passes for 57 yards.

The senior explained, “We came out flat [in the first half], and I was pretty disappointed about that. But at halftime we all got together, and we started playing with some emotion. It started snowballing in the second half.”

Kyle Brown sparked that second half effort with a 49-yard kickoff return to the Ole Miss 30. Using a hurry-up offense, Western (9-1) scored three plays later on Shepherd’s option keeper around right end from eight yards out. That made it 21-3 just 1:01 into the third quarter.

After a three-and-out by Ole Miss, Shepherd skirted right end for a 49-yard burst. Jake Askren plunged in from the four to make it 28-3.

The Indians (6-4) fought back, moving to the Western 16, but the drive stalled and Western took over at the 10. A 90-yard drive ensued. Shepherd scored his second TD on a 25-yard cutback run for a 35-3 lead.

Fittingly, the defense closed the scoring when Panther tackle John Johnson sacked Conner Cunningham for a safety.

Ole Miss coach Steve Rinker said, “Their defensive front is pretty strong and pretty physical and pretty quick, and that created a lot of problems for us. They’re an awfully good football team.”

Rinker was also impressed by the way Shepherd ran the option.

“He makes a lot of really good reads,” he noted. “ He stays tight to the line, and he’s always moving forward. He makes really good cuts, and he accelerates out of his cuts, which makes it very hard to get a good piece of him.”

In the first half, the Panthers got a spark from defensive back/wide receiver Trent Lawlyes. First, Lawlyes made a key block on a 27-yard scamper by Dean Shepherd for Western’s first score. Three plays later, on the final play of the first period, Lawlyes intercepted a pass to set up Western’s second score, a 19-yard pass from Bart Shepherd to Logun Taylor.

Lawlyes, generously listed at 5-foot-9 in the program, had to guard 6-6 wide receiver James Rinker. The Panther senior said, “I was just playing man [defense], working on the tall receiver. He’s about a foot taller than me. I just had to do what I can do, get in front and intercept it.”

The Indians’ field goal came after they recovered a fumbled punt at the Panther 20. Western held at their seven, but Josh Greentree booted a 24-yarder.

Western coach Alix Engle, whose squad travels to Yorktown on Friday, noted, “We’ve got to crank up the emotion a little bit if we’re going to compete with the Yorktowns and the West Lafayettes [in Sectional 20].”

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