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PAXTON — Much like the weather at Zimmerman Field on Friday, the game between Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Iroquois West was not always pretty.
In the end, however, PBL pulled away in the battle of 2-0 teams with a 22-6 victory.
“As I’ve always said, we’re going to cherish this win,” PBL head coach Jeff Graham said. “I sure don’t want to downgrade this win because Iroquois West has a good football team. I’ve said that all along. We’re going to cherish this win.”
The Panthers started the scoring on their opening possession.
They drove through the rainfall on an 80-yard journey that ate up the first 6:54 of the game. The drive included a 26-yard run by Drew Schrodt on fourth-and-1 that put PBL on Iroquois West’s two-yard line.
Two plays later, quarterback Weston Weber scored a touchdown on a one-yard sneak.
After Weber completed a pass to Trent Wooten for the two-point conversion, PBL led 8-0.
From there, however, the Panthers gained a mere 17 yards offensively for the rest of the first half en route to a total of 170 yards for the game.
“I sure want to sit down and watch the film, and I say that because I give some credit to Iroquois West,” Graham said. “I thought they were filling the gaps and just playing good, physical football. That credit goes to Iroquois West.”
With both PBL and Iroquois West — 49 first-half yards offensively — unable to get much going offensively in the first half, the scoring would be left to the defense.
Sure enough, Panthers senior defensive back Josh Hopkins provided the spark.
Hopkins picked off a Keaton Zirkle pass and returned it 47 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown to increase PBL’s lead to 15-0 with 5:49 left in the second quarter.
“That definitely helped us out,” Graham said. “Hopkins read the ball well and stepped in front, and it was a pick-six. That was a big help to us. That gave us a little bit of a charge, and we needed that.”
Hopkins was not the only Panthers defender coming through with big plays when it counted, as Iroquois West had some turnovers on downs.
The Raiders were able to get into the red zone on their first possession after a long run by Henry Gerritson.
However, they eventually got stuck in a fourth-and-14 situation. Gerritson tried to run for the first down, but was stopped short.
Iroquois West also had a third-and-1 opportunity from the PBL 37-yard line. The Panthers’ Nick Heisler stopped the Raiders’ Bailey Conrad for a three-yard loss, forcing a fourth down.
After moving back due to a delay-of-game penalty, Iroquois West faced fourth-and-9. Schrodt made a tackle for a five-yard loss and yet another turnover on downs.
“We just didn’t capitalize,” Iroquois West head coach David Harris said. “They took it to us. They wanted it more than we did at that time.”
Early in the third quarter, the Raiders tried again to convert on fourth down, this time in their own territory.
Gerritson, however, was met by a swarm of PBL defenders, including Wooten, for a loss of yards and possession.
“Our defense just had to step up,” Graham said. “Tonight, we kind of had to bend but don’t break. We would bend and bend, but then we wouldn’t break and we come up with a big defensive stop. That’s just a credit to our defense for stepping up.”
With Iroquois West able to contain a PBL running game that gained 583 yards through its first two games, the Panthers decided to go to the air a little bit on their ensuing possession.
The strategy worked, as Weber connected on a pass on the left flats to Schrodt. The result was a 30-yard touchdown pass that extended PBL’s lead to 22-0 with 8:47 left in the third quarter.
“That was a nice combination there of pass-catch and good execution," Graham said. "We were bound and determined to continue to run offtackle, and they kept stuffing us. You’ve got two choices: keep running it and pounding it and try to wear them out, or pop something open out there in the flat, and that’s exactly what we did. We popped it out there. It was a nice combination, and we got a score.”
Schrodt caught both completed passes from Weber, who finished the game connecting on 2-of-5 throws for 30 yards.
Schrodt was also PBL’s leading rusher with 93 yards on 16 carries. Weber ran for 34 yards on six rushing attempts.
Jesse Houtzel contributed nine rushes for 11 yards, as PBL finished the game with 140 yards rushing on 36 attempts.
Defensively, Wooten sacked Zirkle twice while Hopkins recorded six tackles to go along with his interception.
Schrodt had two of PBL’s six tackles for loss of yards in the first half.
With the win, the Panthers improve to a record of 3-0.
“It feels good,” Graham said. “We’re going to cherish it right now, but we’ve got a lot of improving to do. We’ve got to get back to our basics. Next week, we’ll see a good Watseka team, so we’ve got our work out.”
For Iroquois West, Zirkle completed 2-of-5 passes for 32 yards. The Raiders also gained a total of 136 yards on the ground, including 87 in the second half.
Five of those yards were gained by Gerritson on a touchdown that prevented the shutout for Iroquois West. The touchdown made the score 22-6 in favor of PBL with 1:07 remaining in the game.
“They just took it to us,” Harris said. “They physically beat us. We couldn’t get anything going offensively and we struggled to get some things done defensively. At times, we looked good, but when we looked bad, we just looked really bad.”