But in a result that left folks on both sides of Mel Ingram Field a little baffled, it was the Cavemen who conjured up a superior defensive effort and helped stun South Medford in a 28-7 triumph.
Grants Pass (6-2, 2-1 SWC) entered the matchup allowing an SWC-worst 422 yards and nearly 37 points per game but totally took the Panthers (5-3, 1-2) out of their game. South Medford was limited to 115 total yards — 229 yards under its average — and didn’t score an offensive touchdown for the first time this year.
“I don’t know why we’ve decided to start playing defense the last couple weeks,” said GP head coach John Musser. “It’s the same kids, it’s a similar scheme and South Medford has as good of athletes as anybody else we’ve played for the most part, so I can’t answer that, man.”
Panthers head coach Bill Singler had an answer, and it certainly wasn’t to his liking.
“We just weren’t very physical and we need to be physical,” said Singler. “We lost a physical back (in injured junior Mason DeVries) which hurt us, but I thought our offensive line would respond a little bit better to Grants Pass ... but we didn’t.”
South Medford got its lone touchdown on a 55-yard punt return by junior Austin Boster with 17 seconds left in the first quarter, but otherwise was kept in check.
“I just don’t think we came ready to play tonight, and when you don’t come ready to play you’re going to get punched in the mouth,” said Boster, “and that’s what happened tonight.”
“Especially in the second half, they just out-grinded us and just played tougher than we did,” he added, “and that’s just something we’ve got to overcome.”
Neither team was especially impressive during a feeling-out process in the first half, but the second half was all Grants Pass.
The Cavemen took the opening drive of the third quarter 76 yards for a touchdown and were threatened only once in the second half by the Panthers, and that was due to a long kickoff return by Boster that put his team in prime position at the GP 40-yard line on the ensuing drive.
Like so many other South Medford drives, however, everything fizzled inside the 30 and the Panthers eventually turned the ball over on downs after consecutive incompletions by senior quarterback Giovanni Bottero, who finished a season-low 7-for-25 passing for 81 yards and one interception.
“In the second half they drove the ball the first time they got the ball and we didn’t have a response,” said Singler, “which is unfortunate but sometimes that happens. So we’ve just got to put this game behind us and regroup and we’ll see if these kids have any competitive spirit left here at the end of the year.”
South Medford is set to host North Medford next Friday in the annual Black and Blue Game at Spiegelberg Stadium.
“Next week’s always a fun one, I know we’re all looking forward to it,” said Boster. “I think we have to use this as motivation and I think we’re going to come out ready to play next week and put up a good fight.”
That fight was certainly missing Friday night, with the Panthers’ ground game churning out only 1.3 yards per carry in totaling 34 yards overall.
Senior Terrence Butler managed only 26 yards on 17 carries, and South Medford certainly seemed to be missing the power punch of DeVries, who broke his finger and suffered tendon damage during Tuesday’s practice on a kick return drill. DeVries had eight screws and a plate inserted in his left hand earlier Friday.
“We stopped the run game, that was the big thing,” said Musser. “Coach Singler wants to run the football, always, and then he wants to throw the ball with play-action. It seemed like every time they got a little momentum, we made a big stop.”
That especially held true in the first half, with South Medford turning the ball over on downs at the Grants Pass 15 on its second drive of the game and missing a couple big play opportunities — one that resulted in an interception by Randy Clark just outside the goal line.
“We just weren’t totally in sync,” said Singler. “We were a little bit off here, a little bit off there and not establishing ourselves aggressively at the line of scrimmage.“
“We had chances early,” added the coach. “We missed three touchdown opportunities when we under threw two long balls which were touchdowns and we dropped a touchdown. We had our chances in the first half to get a couple touchdowns, which would’ve helped.”
Boster’s return was set up by a good defensive stand that pushed the Cavemen back deep into their own zone. He took the punt on one hop, quickly changed fields on the GP pursuit and found himself with a lot of open territory toward the South Medford sideline as he scored without being touched.
“That was just one of those where right as you catch it you kind of know that you’re going to take it to the house,” said Boster. “That was how we drew it up and it worked.”
Grants Pass answered with a 38-yard TD pass from Chase Coyle to Clark in the second quarter and it stood 7-7 until Coyle’s screen pass to Emptage resulted in an 11-yard score to open the third quarter.
The Cavemen, who finished with 394 total yards, used some trickery with a halfback pass from Blain Hobbs to Korbin Lopez for a 16-yard score later in the third, then capitalized after a Bottero fumble with a game-sealing 5-yard TD run by Emptage that sent him head over heels into the end zone with 7:33 to play.
Emptage managed 140 yards on 22 carries, while Coyle completed 16 of 27 passes for 173 yards.
“It was just one of those things that this team, once they start clicking they click,” said Musser. “And when it stops clicking, it stops clicking. Tonight, in the second half, we were clicking.”
With the win, Grants Pass assured itself an automatic berth in the Class 6A state playoffs, with one regular season remaining at first-place Sheldon.
“To me, personally, anytime we beat South Medford means a lot,” added Musser, “because I consider them one of the best-coached teams in the state with (defensive coordinator) Chris Parnell, with Bill Singler and his entire group. So when you beat them, it feels pretty good.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry