If South Medford was going to knock off Sheldon for the third straight season, Panthers football coach Bill Singler knew his team was going to need a flawless first quarter in hopes of putting the visiting Irish on their heels Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.
The exact opposite happened, however, and it wasn’t surprising to see Sheldon use the momentum built from a 14-point surge in the opening six minutes to score a 45-20 triumph in a matchup of Southwest Conference leaders.
“We beat them the last two years so we knew they weren’t just going to come out here and let us beat them again,” said South Medford junior Austin Boster. “They wanted to come in and beat us and that’s what happened tonight. They got on us right away.”
After returning the opening kickoff to midfield, Sheldon (5-2, 2-0 SWC) needed only 2 1/2 minutes to strike first as senior running back Matthew Burgess burst through the defense and stretched through a tackle to finish off a 24-yard touchdown run.
It only got better for the Irish from there despite the appearance that South Medford (5-2, 1-1) was primed for an answer. Panthers quarterback Giovanni Bottero fired a strike toward the sideline that fellow senior Adam Nanez hauled in and turned upfield for a solid gain, only to have the ball stripped from his grasp and recovered by the Irish at the South Medford 33.
“It was unfortunate because we get 9 yards on a nice play and we fumble the ball and give them a chance to go up 14-0 right away, which is too bad,” said Singler. “You can’t have turnovers against any team, and we started both halves with fumbles to give them two more ball possessions, which you obviously can’t do with Sheldon.”
Sheldon quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. capped a short drive with an 8-yard TD pass to Jack Folsom and it was 14-0 seemingly in the blink of an eye.
“It helped us emotionally early,” Sheldon coach Josh Line said of the surge, “but (South Medford) rebounded and got some points on the board and went into halftime with some hope. We’ve got some things that we’ve got to get better at, but I’m real proud of the kids for getting the job done tonight.”
Only a diving interception by Panthers senior safety Jace Campbell kept the Irish from potentially padding their lead in the first quarter. It didn’t come easy after Johnson launched a deep pass into double coverage that was tipped on a collision between receiver and defender and Campbell was there to finish the play. Campbell added another interception at the goal line in the third quarter.
“We’ve been working tip drill since we were little kids and when I saw the ball go up, I just thought, ‘I should probably dive for that,’ so I did,” said Campbell. “The second one he kind of threw it right there for me so that was easier.”
On this night, however, nothing really came easy for the Panthers as Sheldon’s size advantage in the trenches and athleticism overall proved too much to counter.
Sheldon amassed 354 of its 484 yards on the ground as Johnson and Burgess each ran for 142 yards to pave the way. South Medford’s running attack never gained steam to finish with only 68 yards overall, but Bottero was able to complete 20 of 31 passes for 300 yards, three TDs and one interception.
“They’re super-talented and it’s hard to match up when talent kind of overwhelms hard work sometimes,” said Campbell. “We came out and we gave it our all, and we’re not ashamed by anything. We played our hardest and the better team won today.”
Even when the Panthers had Sheldon in a bind, Johnson found a way to resolve the problem. On a second-and-29 play from Sheldon’s own 7-yard line early in the second quarter, the Penn State commit called his own number on a read-option play, found a seam inside and then bounced to the edge for a 93-yard score that made it 21-0.
“That was a killer, that was a killer,” said Singler. “They can crease you anytime and scare you to death just by spreading you out and forcing you to make open-field tackles. And when you have an athletic 6-4, 200-pounder that’s fast like that ... listen, we don’t see that every day in Oregon.”
That didn’t stop South Medford from plugging away, and Bottero answered with a 67-yard TD pass to Trevor Marthoski and, after a Jay Kartub 31-yard field goal, the Panthers quarterback eluded a wave of defenders before finding Mason DeVries for a 29-yard TD pass that made it 24-13 with four minutes to play in the first half.
“Sometimes you have to make plays when things go haywire,” said Singler. “When they’ve got six or so blitzing or more, man it’s tough to pick them all up and I give Gio a lot of credit for hanging in there and looking downfield and making a couple big throws.”
The energized buzz on the Panther sideline was muted a few minutes later when Johnson lofted a 37-yard TD pass to Jacob Frey with one minute to go in the half, allowing the Irish to take a 31-13 lead into the break.
Burgess sandwiched TD runs of 1 and 23 yards in the second half around an 8-yard TD pass from Bottero to Boster for the final tallies. Boster finished with seven catches for 112 yards.
Sheldon played all but the first two series of the game without star senior Patrick Herbert, who is nursing a leg injury.
“He was fine,” said Line. “He has something that’s real minor and we just didn’t feel like we wanted to push it.”
Johnson completed 12 of 22 passes for 130 yards with two interceptions.
After the game, the Panthers sounded undeterred by the setback with two regular season games left against Grants Pass and North Medford.
“It’s a lot of adversity that we haven’t faced yet but we’ve got good guys and we’re going to come back from this,” said Boster. “We’ll get a good week of practice in and we’ll be good.”