Pana keeps its simple in IHSA football first-round playoff win
PANA — Pana’s strategy was simple on a cold, windy, rainy and muddy night: get the ball to Austin Henschen and let him work.
The senior running back had 273 yards and three touchdowns in Pana’s 49-19 Class 2A first-round win over Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond on Friday.
“I did not expect that, but our line came out very strong, we had a Panther back (lead blocker) in there and he came out strong,” Henschen said. “We had great blocks all night.”
Henschen had 207 yards at halftime just by doing his job, Pana’s sixth-year coach Trevor Higgins said.
“We preach (following the blocker) all year,” Higgins said. “That’s a rough play to start with because we have two pullers; so to be able to follow both blocks, that’s just a vision thing and he’s gotten better as the year’s gone on.
“Evan Swisher … won’t get much credit in the paper, but he’s our Panther back and he leads for that play for Austin, and he has done an amazing job blocking that and he went up against some tough kids tonight.”
Pana (10-0) will face either No. 7 Maroa-Forsyth (7-2) in Pana or at No. 10 Westville (7-2). Those two teams meet on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“Nine and 0 felt great, 10-0 is better and state is even better,” Henschen said. “That’s what we’re going for.”
Pana struck quickly
Pana took the opening kick and needed just four plays before junior quarterback Max Lynch scored a 10-yard touchdown. Lynch’s scoring run was preceded by a 57-yard carry from Henschen. ALAH’s junior Kaden Feagin, who has been recruited by the Illini, caught Henschen from behind.
Feagin is 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.
Lynch gave the Panthers a 14-0 run with a 1-yard carry midway through the first. He then added to the lead with a 20-yard pass to Kyle Kuhn for the touchdown in the back of the end zone.
Panthers’ kicker Bo Christer was 7-for-7 on extra-point kicks.
When ALAH scored on a 97-yard kick return by Feagin with 2 minutes, 38 seconds left in the opening quarter, Pana countered with a one-play, 60-yard touchdown run by Henschen to regain its 21-point lead.
Almost 12 minutes later exactly, Pana upped its lead to 35-7 on a 43-yard Henschen run.
The Knights (5-5) got within 35-13 at halftime when Landon Waldrop returned a Lynch interception 87 yards after the horn sounded.
Pana is a veteran of the mud
Two weeks ago, Pana won its only nonconference game 17-0 on a mud-filled field at Nokomis. The offense was stalled for much of the night, but the Panthers were able to come out with the win.
But the most important thing the team gained from that experience, Lynch said, was confidence.
“I knew after that game at Nokomis, if we had another rainy game, it wouldn’t be as hard as that,” Lynch said. “We can do a lot more in the mud than we thought we could. I knew Henschen could have broken a couple of runs away at Nokomis, I knew I could have and today, Henschen broke them all the way and he did amazing for us.”
Lynch threw for 1,243 yards in the nine regular season games — 138 yards per game — but was limited to just 25 against Nokomis and 56 on Friday.
“We knew this was going to be a tough game,” Lynch said. “It’s the playoffs. Henschen carried us, the (offensive) line carried us. Everyone just did amazing.”
What makes Lynch all the more dangerous is his ability to tuck the ball and run. He had 1,110 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games. And ALAH appeared to know that, too.
“We saw an interview with ALAH’s head coach (Ryan Jefferson) and he said, ‘We’re just going to bundle up Max Lynch,’” Higgins said. “That’s not giving away your game plan, but it was for us because now we’re going to do this (give the ball to Henschen).
“Max didn’t get as many carries as he normally does because if you focus on him, now you miss out on an Austin Henschen or a Brenden Schoonover or we could go down the line of guys who are fast and athletic.”
Pana stymied a Division-I recruit
Henschen and Lynch both admitted Feagin took them by surprise by his closing speed on defense. But the Panthers’ defense mostly wrapped him up and prevented him from getting out into open space to sprint.
Feagin rarely came off the field. He also was the focus of the Knights’ offense lined up at quarterback where he ran 30 times but mustered 88 yards against the stingy Pana defense.
“Defense was great,” Henschen said. “That boy was a beast — he’s heavy — but I think our defense did really good. I’m not going to lie: he’s tough.”
Higgins said he has a lot of respect for Feagin, who has eight D-I offers including Illinois, Notre Dame and five other Big Ten schools.
“The kid’s just a tough kid,” Higgins said. “I can’t imagine how many carries he had tonight but all the yards that he got, he definitely earned; they were tough yards. Our defense was really up for the challenge of keying on him and stopping him. Our defense was all over him.”
The seniors who face the end of their high school careers whenever the Pana postseason ends were highly motivated, Higgins said.
“You look across the board, the guys who stepped up are seniors: Kyle Kuhn had just another amazing game. Ace Armstrong had a great game defensively,” he said.
Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.