Panthers ground EP, 35-7

Bryan Veginski
Crossing the goal line: Washington junior tight end Austin Nichols scores Saturday on a third-down pass from quarterback Drew Schlink with 1:48 left in the first half of the Panthers’ 35-7 home win over East Peoria in the Class 5A playoffs.

Washington held East Peoria scoreless over the final 35:47 in a Saturday afternoon postseason contest.

The result was a 35-7 Panther victory at Babcook Field in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs in front of a crowd of 1,950.

It was Washington’s second win in three weeks over the Raiders and marked the third straight opening-round playoff triumph (2004, 2007) for the Panthers.

“Our guys were fired up for this one,” WCHS head coach Darrell Crouch said. “I think our kids played well.”

Washington (9-1) will travel to sixth-seeded Dunlap (6-4) for a 1 p.m. Saturday at Eagle Field.

The Eagles downed No. 3 seed Woodruff, 35-34, in their first-round game in Peoria Saturday.

Colton Underwood accumulated 185 rushing yards, including a 10-yard touchdown run, for the Panthers.

“Our line did a good enough job to get him to the second level and he ran over some people,” said Crouch of Underwood.

A couple stops by the Raider free safety prevented Underwood from breaking off some huge runs.

Underwood also credited the efforts of the offensive line and the junior said there was not a plan to feed him the ball.

The team saw the trap play was available and it continued to get the ball there.

Second-seeded Washington scored in four different ways against East Peoria (5-5).

Justin Riley’s 46-yard punt return for a TD gave the hosts a 7-0 lead with 7:46 left in the first quarter.

The No. 7 seed Raiders evened the game when Chris Collins produced an 86-yard TD reception on a pass from Caleb Eckhoff, who was making his second consecutive start at quarterback.

With less than two minutes left before halftime, Panther QB Drew Schlink found Austin Nichols for a six-yard TD toss.

Washington stretched its lead when Underwood crossed the goal line late in the third period.

The Panthers broke it open with two scores in the fourth to make East Peoria’s first playoff appearance since 1989 a brief one.

Riley, who added 59 yards on the ground, hit pay dirt from four yards out with 8:11 remaining.

On the next Raider possession, Issac Fisher intercepted a pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.

Tony Ramadani concluded a 5-for-5 effort on point-after tries to help Washington win its eighth game in a row.

Bobby Miller led the Panthers with eight tackles, and Connor Underwood provided two sacks.

Brett Cook also brought down the East Peoria signal-caller behind the line of scrimmage.

With a 278-77 margin in rushing, Washington outgained the guests by 117 total yards.

The Panthers picked off three passes and did not commit a turnover.

The outcome was much different than two weeks earlier when Washington needed two late touchdowns to come back for a 27-23 win on the Raiders’ home field.

The nine Panther wins is the most since 1993. They were ranked No. 7 in the final Associated Press 5A regular season state poll.

Other 5A first-round winners in Washington’s portion of the bracket included: Metamora, Streator, Cahokia, Marion, Decatur MacArthur and Highland.

Round two: Washington will try to defeat its second straight conference opponent in the second round of the playoffs.

“They’ve done a great job,” Crouch said of the players. “I hope we can keep it going.”

Dunlap, which is in the postseason for the seventh time in eight years, has won five of its last six games since a 1-3 start that included a 21-0 home loss to the Panthers Sept. 19.

“It’s a very tough matchup,” Crouch said. “We’ll have to play a good all-around game.”

“We have improved (since the Washington loss). We’re more confident now, and we’re playing much better as a team,” said Dunlap coach Jeff Alderman. “But, that is going to be a tough game for us. Washington is an excellent team. They are very tough on the lines, on both sides of the ball. They run the ball effectively, which sets up their play action passing.”

Alderman said his team had a couple breakdowns on defense in the first meeting with Washington.

“That could have been a closer game, but we fell asleep on a couple big plays,” he said. “We can’t afford any breakdowns this time. Overall, I think the game will come down to who makes the fewest mistakes.”

The Eagles were led in rushing in the regular season by Joe Cloud, who also is a prolific punter.

After using Luke Sensabaugh and Logan Schrader at QB in the regular season, Schrader performed well against Woodruff handling the role by himself.

Washington saw Schrader for most of the second half in the first meeting with Dunlap.

Dunlap’s defense, anchored by a sturdy line, surrendered just 13 points per game over the last four regular-season matchups.

On offense, Crouch said the Panthers will need to spread the ball around and deal with different defensive alignments the Eagles will present.

The visitors again will be without key seniors Chase Catton and Cody Meeks. 

The Panthers will try to become just the fourth football team in school history to win 10 games.

Washington is enthusiastic about reaching round two and being one of 16 teams left in 5A.

It does not want to stop there.

“We’re very excited about that,” said Crouch. “One of our goals was to go very deep in the playoffs.”

Steve Daggs and Tom Batters contributed to this story