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CHAMPAIGN — In a span of merely 14 seconds, PBL experienced an unlucky momentum shift.
With 10:54 left in the first quarter, Jesse Houtzel followed a 46-yard run by Trent Wooten with the go-ahead touchdown on a 24-yard rumble to give PBL a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the ball was placed in an opportunistic place for PBL players Weston Weber, Wooten and Nick Heisler, among others, had a chance to fall on it and give the Panthers another possession.
“We had that in our grasp, and it just popped out and they got it,” PBL head coach Jeff Graham said. “It just didn’t bounce our way.”
Instead, the Sabers recovered the kickoff. Andrew Young scored on a 61-yard touchdown on the first play of scrimmage to tie the score of 7-7 with 10:40 remaining in the first quarter.
That would be the start of a 49-7 run by St. Thomas More (3-4, 1-4 Sangamon Valley Conference), the end result of which was a 49-14 Homecoming win for the Sabers.
“We had some positive points of execution. But we, obviously, didn’t get it done,” Graham said. “We had some pretty unfortunate bounces. We could have gotten the ball back on the kickoff. We didn’t, and then they scored. We just had a couple of bounces here and there. I’m not saying that had an effect on the game, but how do you know it doesn’t because we could move the ball and we had some positive things.”
Weber ran for a first down on PBL’s next possession, but the Panthers ended up punting.
The Sabers took the lead on a Storm Joop touchdown pass to Kevin Carroll that covered 68 yards and put STM up 14-7 with 7:16 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Sabers put up another score by the end of the first quarter when Weber fumbled a bad snap, which STM recovered deep in PBL territory.
Joop would take advantage of the short field position by capping the drive with a six-yard touchdown run. The score increased the Sabers’ lead to 21-7 with 4:29 left in the quarter.
“They really played great tonight,” STM head coach Dan Hennessey said. “They executed what we put in worked on all week.”
The Panthers (4-3, 1-3 SVC), however, began the engineering of a drive that ran through the rest of the opening quarter and the first 58 seconds of the second quarter.
Zac Weisenbarn received a couple of handoffs for two first-down runs. On a third-and-six, Weber faked a handoff to Weisenbarn and scampered down the left side for 13 yards and another first down.
Two plays later, Weisenbarn found a hole on the left side and reached the end zone to cut PBL’s deficit to 21-14.
“Doggone it, we had some times where we moved the ball,” Graham said. “We did some things right and we executed right. I felt like we had several kids give a nice effort. I know the score doesn’t indicate that, but doggone it, we had some positive things, and I think that’s what we’ve got to build on.”
On STM’s next possession, it looked like PBL’s defense gave its team the ball back on a turnover, as Will Boman recovered a fumble.
The Sabers’ runner, however, was declared down by contact by the referees.
“We’ve got to focus on the things that we can control,” Graham said. “We lost the game. St. Thomas More did a good job, and we’ve got to work on the things that we can control. Really, that’s all I have to say about that.”
Joop continued the STM drive with a 34-yard pass to Young. A 30-yard toss to Carroll put the ball at PBL’s two-yard line.
From there, Young punched the ball into the end zone to exten the Sabers’ lead to 28-14 with 9:59 left in the second quarter.
The score would remain 28-14 at halftime despite a PBL drive in the final minutes.
Houtzel and Wooten each had big runs for PBL in that drive to bring the ball to the STM 30-yard line.
A screen pass to Houtzel on first down resulted in a seven-yard loss via tackle by Ben Ely and Chase Kangas. On the next play, Weber was tackled for a four-yard loss to force a third-and-21 situation.
Intending to throw a pass to Wooten along the left sideline, Weber was intercepted by Cameron Deedrich with less than a minute remaining until halftime.
With STM leading 42-14, PBL mounted another potential scoring drive that carried over from the third quarter to the fourth.
Weber started the drive with a couple of first-down runs. He engineered another first-down run on a fourth-and-three that put the ball on STM’s 30-yard line.
Houtzel drove the ball to the 18-yard line with a 12-yard run. The Panthers would face third-and-one on the nine-yard line.
However, Weber and Houtzel were denied yardage on third and fourth down, respectively, to force a turnover on downs.
“That’s a tough team,” Hennessey said. “It’s tough to defend the single-wing T that they put out there. We had a bend-but-don’t break attitude. I’m sure they got a lot of rushing yards, but we made big plays.”
The Panthers gathered a total of 316 yards on the ground as a team. Wooten rushed for 92 yards on three carries.
Weisenbarn and Houtzel each carried the ball 10 times. Weisenbarn ran for 65 yards while Houtzel compiled 61 yards.
Weber had 49 yards rushing on 23 carries while completing 1-of-6 passes for minus-seven yards. Talon Yaden ran for 41 yards on three attempts.
“I felt like, going in, we had a pretty good-looking game plan,” Graham said. “The plan was well-executed there at the beginning of the game.”
Following STM’s fourth-quarter red-zone stop, Joop threw a 69-yard touchdown to to put the icing on the cake with 8:41 left in the game.
It was the last of three touchdowns thrown by Joop, who completed 7-of-11 pass attempts for 238 yards and rushed for 61 yards on 13 carries.
“Storm did a nice job of controlling the tempo of the game,” Hennessey said. “He comes to play. If it isn’t there, he’s taking off. That’s something that you’ve got to watch for when he drops back in the pocket. He’s a very elusive runner. He can really do things for us.”
Two of his touchdown passes were thrown to Carroll, who had three receptions for 117 yards, including a 19-yard grab that made the score 35-14 in favor of STM with 9:40 left in the third quarter.
“When we get the ball to him, he just makes things happen,” Hennessey said. “He’s the go-to guy, just like we’ve been saying all year.”
Michael Plecki scored on a 25-yard run with 5:49 left in the third quarter and finished the game with 35 yards rushing on four carries.
Young led STM in rushing with 131 yards on nine carries.
“I thought Young did a great job at running back tonight,” Hennessey said.
The Panthers will host Momence next Friday.
Whether Drew Schrodt, who missed the last two games with a knee injury, will play against the Redskins remained a mystery as of last Friday.
“We’ll see what happens this week with Drew,” Graham said Friday. “Hopefully, that leg will get stronger.”