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CLIFTON — Trent Wooten scored on an 85-yard kickoff return with 10:24 left in the second quarter.
That play aside, however, positive thoughts were hard to come by for PBL in a 49-7 loss to Clifton Central.
Panthers head coach Jeff Graham, however, found some positive things to say about the team’s effort regardless of the score of the game.
“We had kids that continued giving effort the whole time,” Graham said. “We had kids that continued to give 110 percent the whole time they were out there, and I am very proud of them. Our kids are the greatest kids. I would not trade our kids for anything. They’re the best kids that you can possibly have, and they’re going to come back next week and work hard.”
With the loss, PBL fell to a record of 4-2 (1-2 Sangamon Valley Conference). Clifton Central, meanwhile, improved to 5-1 (2-1 SVC).
“You’ve got to give Clifton Central credit,” Graham said. “They are a well-coached team. They’re just a good, stable ballclub that has done a lot of the same things for the 15 years that Brian Spooner’s been there. They go into a place and expect to win. They believe and they execute really well. They were prepared, they executed and they got the job done tonight.”
After a three-and-out opening series for PBL in which Josh Brenneisen sacked Weston Weber on third down, Logan Gigl ended Clifton Central’s opening possession with a four-yard touchdown run.
The score gave the Comets a 7-0 lead with 7:41 left in the first quarter.
After gaining a couple of first downs, PBL turned the ball over on its ensuing possession. Clifton Central recovered a Weber fumble on its own 39-yard line.
The Comets scored seven points off the turnover. Noah Frerichs caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from J.R. Caspary to extend the lead to 14-0 with 2:54 remaining in the first quarter.
The Panthers turned the ball over again before the end of the quarter, as Chris Garcia returned a Weber interception to the PBL 40-yard line.
On Clifton Central’s ensuing possession, Caspary threw another 12-yard touchdown pass, this one to Carter Turner, who leaped over Zac Weisenbarn in the back of the end zone and barely kept his feet inbounds. The grab put the Comets up 21-0 with 10:37 left in the second quarter.
“I thought our kids played extremely well,” Clifton Central head coach Brian Spooner said. “I think they played hard. I thought PBL’s kids played hard. At the end, we just kind of overpowered them and kind of wore them out. We got some nice opportunities to score. I’m happy with the way the kids played tonight.”
Wooten’s touchdown was scored on the ensuing kickoff, as he sprinted 85 yards down the left sideline to put PBL on the scoreboard.
On Clifton Central’s next possession, Jacob Meyer tackled Gigl for a loss and Will Boman sacked Caspary to set up a third-and-21.
Derrick Graham caught a screen pass and took it 38 yards to the PBL 40-yard line.
The Panthers would force a fourth-and-eight situation on the 25-yard line, on which Kolton Koch missed a 42-yard field goal attempt.
Clifton Central got another chance to score before halftime, however. The Comets took advantage with a 21-yard run by Graham.
After Graham caught a pass from Logan Podowicz for the two-point conversion, Clifton Central led 29-7 with 1:07 left in the second quarter and would hold that lead at halftime.
The Comets picked up where they left off in the second half, as Frerichs started the second half by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to extend Clifton Central’s lead to 36-7.
“Noah Frerichs had a touchdown catch in the first half and the opening kickoff in the second half returned for a touchdown,” Spooner said. “He made a couple of nice moves to give himself that space to score those touchdowns.”
On its next possession, PBL gained a couple of first downs via Weisenbarn end-around run and Brock Swanstron reception to get the ball to the Comets’ 34-yard line.
The Panthers faced a fourth-and-11, on which the Comets’ Dalton Smith forced a fumble that Gigl scooped up and returned 65 yards for a touchdown. The score increased Clifton Central’s lead to 42-7 with 6:57 left in the third quarter.
“I thought our line on both sides of the ball played really well,” Spooner said. “They basically allowed us to get all those points. The fumble recovery that Gigl had was caused by (defensive end) Dalton Smith. They left it on the ground, and Gigl picked it up for a scoop and score.”
Graham said he originally thought Gigl was down by contact on the play, but agrees with the referees’ judgment.
“There was no dispute,” Graham said. “I thought he was down. That guy had a better view than I did. Sometimes, you get a little frustrated and whatnot. I thought he was down, but there was absolutely no dispute. The referee was right there. That’s what he saw, so that’s what the call was, so it’s a correct call.”
Derrick Graham put the icing on the cake for the Comets, scoring on a six-yard interception return with less than 46 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
He would also finish the game with 14 carries for 52 yards and 38 yards on one reception on offense.
“I thought Derrick Graham played a great game on both sides of the ball,” Spooner said.
In total, PBL committed a total of five turnovers, including three via fumble.
“That hurts,” Graham said. “You can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to win. That’s what we were talking about before the second half. They scored on two fumbles and an interception. You can’t expect to be successful when you turn the ball over.”
The Panthers had a chance to score in the fourth quarter, as a couple of first-down runs by Weber helped put the ball on the one-yard line of Clifton Central.
On fourth-and-goal, however, Jesse Houtzel was stuffed by the Comets to give PBL a turnover on downs.
Weber finished the game with the team lead in rushing with 60 yards on 12 carries as well as 1-of-3 passing for 10 yards.
Houtzel contributed 35 rushing yards, as PBL finished the game with a total of 122 yards on the ground.
“Our defense has played against the run really tough all year,” Spooner said. “Tonight, they did it again. They did a great job against what I think is a pretty good PBL team.”
For Clifton Central, Gigl led the ground game with 97 yards on 18 carries. Graham had 52 yards on 14 carries while Ben Toberman ran the ball five times for 63 yards in garbage time. Caspary completed 5-of-9 passes for 88 yards.
The Panthers are still looking for their first win against a team that currently has a winning record.
They will have two more chances in the regular season. Following this week’s game at St. Thomas More, PBL will face Momence and St. Joseph-Ogden.
“Coach (Brock) Niebuhr said it best when we were talking after the game (when he said that) our kids have to learn how to expect to win and believe that they’re going to win,” Graham said. “We’ve got to keep working that expectation into the mental aspect. Part of that mental component is expecting to win, and when we go somewhere, that’s the level we’ve got to get at.”
The Panthers’ freshman team remains undefeated at 5-0 with a 22-0 win on Friday over Clifton Central.
Peyton McClure threw for a touchdown and ran for another to lead PBL scoring-wise. Paul Bigham added a touchdown run.
The PBL freshmen have two games remaining on their schedule. They will host Momence on Oct. 11 and travel to St. Joseph-Ogden the following week.