North Medford came out of Saturday’s rescheduled matchup against Southwest Conference football favorite Sheldon with a lot to feel good about, except for the final score.
Sheldon, ranked No. 1 in the Class 6A power rankings and No. 3 in the 6A coaches poll, used a pair of special teams miscues by the Black Tornado to pull away for a 35-6 win in North Medford’s first afternoon contest at Spiegelberg Stadium in 25 years.
The SWC-opening game had been moved from Friday night after air quality made the contest unplayable in Medford.
The Irish (4-1, 1-0 SWC) scored their first touchdown after a scoreless first quarter when they swarmed Tornado punter Jett Carpenter after a snap sailed over his head. He was tackled at the North Medford 5-yard line on the first play of the second quarter, and standout senior quarterback Michael Johnson Jr., who has committed to play at Penn State, scored on a 2-yard run two plays later.
During a 21-point third quarter, Sheldon’s Parker Wiles partially blocked a punt by Carpenter and Zach Folsom returned it 30 yards for another score.
“We always get great play from our special teams,” said Sheldon head coach Josh Line. “Our coach is really good and our kids respond to that, and it’s helped us in a lot of our games.”
Such plays may not have been necessary to overcome the Black Tornado (2-3, 0-1) on this day, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Still, North Medford was able to move the ball for the bulk of the contest against Sheldon and wound up only being outgained by 9 yards, 282-273, in total offense. The Irish entered the contest averaging 401 yards per game, while North Medford was at 438, but Saturday proved to be an old-fashioned battle in the trenches.
“That’s the No. 1 team in the state of Oregon and our defense only let them score three touchdowns on us and we scored against their defense? I’ll take it,” said North senior tailback Eli Spence.
“It was fun, I had a blast out there,” added the 6-foot-5, 217-pounder. “They’re just the better team. Sheldon’s killing it this year and I can’t wait to see how they do. I’m just excited now to play the Cavemen next week, and focus in on us.”
North Medford was able to chew up 6 1/2 minutes on its opening drive before a fourth-down stop at the Sheldon 32-yard line, and had the ball for the bulk of the first half but couldn’t get the breakthrough effort it needed to put points on the board in falling behind 14-0 at intermission.
“You can control the ball all you want but you’ve still got to put it in the end zone, and we didn’t do that,” said Black Tornado head coach Steve Turner. “Yeah we had some long drives, but we’ve got to finish those drives.”
A 49-yard run by Dallin England put North in position to answer Sheldon’s opening score, but that drive fizzled around the Irish 25 and Spence’s fourth-down pass was intercepted by Jacob Frey.
After Johnson connected with Oregon-bound tight end Patrick Herbert on a 12-yard score, North Medford used an up-tempo attack to again get in scoring position, with Josh Baptiste providing a key fourth-down run, but a final-second pass from Brennan Stults toward Spence in the corner of the end zone from the 13-yard line was well defended and kept the Tornado off the scoreboard as the horn sounded.
“Field goals aren’t going to beat that team,” said Turner of eschewing a field goal attempt with one second remaining. “We needed touchdowns down 14.”
Spence wound up running 22 times for 105 of North Medford’s 149 yards on the ground in the first half. Every run attempt was seemingly met with multiple Sheldon defenders as the Irish sold out to stop the SWC’s leading rusher, who had already gone over 1,000 yards in four games.
“We had to stop their run, which we didn’t do a great job of early,” said Line. “They’ve got a tough attack and they’ve got some really good players and they’re well-coached, so we struggled early. We were able to keep them out of the end zone but at the end of the day it’s a win and something we’ll learn from as we progress through this season.”
Spence finished with 129 yards on 32 carries but couldn’t add to his 14 rushing touchdowns thus far, while England added 60 yards on six carries and Baptiste ran five times for 25 yards.
North Medford pulled out all the tricks to try to catch Sheldon off guard throughout the game, including an onside kick to start the second half that was well executed but just slid under the diving grasp of Carpenter before going out of bounds.
With a short field, the Irish marched 49 yards in five plays with one costly pass interference penalty to score on a 13-yard read-option keeper by Johnson. It became 28-0 two minutes later when Folsom returned the partially blocked punt, and 35-0 with 3:49 to go in the third quarter on a 13-yard touch pass from Johnson to Herbert.
“He’s the real deal and those guys are the No.1 team in the state,” said Turner of the Johnson-led attack. “I thought we played a pretty good first half and, if we get that onside kick starting the second half, things might be a little bit different, but they’re a good team.”
North Medford finally broke through with 9 1/2 minutes left to play when Carpenter hauled in a pass by Stults and stretched into the end zone for a 13-yard score.
Johnson ran 10 times for 88 yards and completed 6 of 11 passes for 48 yards and two TDs, while Herbert caught four passes for 34 yards as Sheldon played the second half without leading rusher Matthew Burgess, who injured his ankle in the second quarter.