3 reasons state-ranked Pana football completed a unbeaten regular season
CARLINVILLE — The Pana football team’s unblemished season appeared to be slipping away.
A botched kickoff return forced the Panthers to start on their own 1 while trailing 13-12 with 10 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Pana escaped out of the shadow of its own goal post and junior quarterback Max Lynch threw the go-ahead 67-yard touchdown pass to his cousin, Ace Armstrong, en route to a 27-13 South Central Conference victory over Carlinville on Friday.
“When I came out in the second half, I felt a little more calm, so being at the 1-yard line didn’t really faze me,” Lynch said. “I knew the offense would pull through.”
The Panthers, 9-0 and ranked No. 5 in Class 2A by The Associated Press, secured the outright SCC title and delivered coach Trevor Higgins his 50th career victory. Pana shared the conference crown with Carlinville and Piasa Southwestern last season in the spring.
“I know everyone is going to talk about 9-0, 50th win,” Higgins said. “But it’s all of these kids and the work they put in. I’m just so stinking proud of them, I love them to death and I can’t wait to see where this takes us.”
Pana carried by the double move
Lynch actually slipped and fell at the one-half yard line to start the fourth period.
But senior running back Austin Henschen followed with a 15-yard run on a toss play and Pana picked up another first down on third-and-10 due to a pass interference penalty after Armstrong dropped a deep pass near the sideline.
Armstrong more than compensated a couple of plays later. He became wide open toward the middle of the field on a double-move while Lynch rolled out of the pocket to set up the game-winning play.
“Ace is just an athlete,” Lynch said. “We go way back. We used to play football all of the time. I knew he was going to come through after dropping that one. He made up for it.”
Pana overcame a slow start
Pana’s offense sputtered for most of the first half. The Panthers only totaled one first down and 5 passing yards until their final possession of the first half.
Lynch completed a 42-yard pass to Haden Stark to jumpstart a seven-play, 76-yard scoring drive to enter halftime deadlocked 6-6.
“I know I’m going to persevere,” Lynch said. “I know my team is going to persevere with me. That’s why we got the job done.”
Lynch completed 9 of 18 passing attempts for 168 yards and one TD. He also ran for 63 yards and one TD. Armstrong had three catches for 104 yards. Henschen added 11 carries for 66 yards and two TDs.
“We knew Carlinville was going to come out in Cover 0 (with no deep defenders), stuff the box and make us throw deep,” Higgins said. “At the beginning of the game, we missed so many wide open guys and then we had a couple of catches that went right off the fingertips. To be able to hit that was just huge for our offense.”
Pana turned over Carlinville
Pana forced five turnovers for the second consecutive week after knocking off Nokomis 17-0. This time, all interceptions. Pana senior defensive Brenden Schoonover nabbed three INTs.
Schoonover even intercepted senior quarterback Ayden Tiburzi on Carlinville’s first offensive play of the game. He picked off Tiburzi again on deep passes in the second and third quarters.
“I just knew we had to win this game,” Schoonover said. “I was doing everything I could on defense. That’s what we wanted and we got the win. I’m proud of my team.”
Schoonover came into Week 9 with two interceptions this season, but he set the school record with six INTs in just five games last season. That included three INTs in a game against Hillsboro.
“It’s awesome," Schoonover said of going undefeated in the regular season. "I’m going to go home and this smile isn’t coming off of my face, so tomorrow at the seeding, the smile’s not coming off of my face. I’m so proud of everybody on my team.”
Tiburzi finished 25-for-41 for 165 yards and one TD with five INTs.
Senior running back Mason Patton led the Cavaliers (7-2) with 115 rushing yards and one TD on 31 carries. Carson Wiser, who set school records for most catches and receiving yards in a season, had 10 receptions for 73 yards. Ethen Siglock had nine catches for 45 yards and one TD.
Carlinville led 6-0 early in the second quarter after Tiburzi’s short TD pass to Siglock on fourth-and-goal and reclaimed a 13-12 advantage at the start of the fourth quarter on Patton’s 2-yard TD run.
“They have a great defense,” Carlinville coach Chad Easterday said. “We struggled moving the ball a little bit in the second half. I was a little disappointed we couldn’t get another score on the board. We had some missed opportunities out there, killed ourselves with penalties (10 for 72 yards) and stuff like that.”
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