It was all going really well for the Elmore County Panthers — at first.
They found themselves moving the ball well, up two touchdowns over Beauregard with under 30 seconds to play in the second half. Then sophomore Garret Allen pulled down an interception in the Hornets’ red zone. With time ticking away, Panther quarterback Payton Stephenson rolled out and found senior Cole Boothe near the goal line.
But after the catch, as he fought for the touchdown, Boothe was stripped of the ball. But the fumble rolled toward the end zone, where freshman Jabari Murphy picked it up for what appeared to be his third touchdown of the night.
But the officials whistled the play dead.
As Elmore County head coach Jordan Cantrell argued the call, Hornet head coach Rob Carter had his squad halfway out the gates of Burt-Haynie Field.
The officials would not be dissuaded of their opinion, and the game moved to halftime, with the Panthers up by two — not three — touchdowns, despite loud protests from the ECHS faithful.
Elmore County didn’t score again, as it dropped its fifth straight game with a 42-28 loss to Beauregard on Friday night.
“We had an opportunity before the half to punch it in, and I felt like we did,” Cantrell said. “I felt like there was a lot of momentum that changed with some calls (by officials). But we should’ve made plays when we needed to. It was a wild game in that aspect... Not making excuses though. We’ve got to play ball.”
The unrest against the officials was palpable throughout the game, despite penalties only taking Elmore County back 25 yards on the night, versus 145 yards of penalties for the Hornets. But the Panther faithful never really got over that one big moment.
“The people know,” Cantrell said. “If you think there’s bad calls, you have to overcome it. I mean, there’s adversity in life you have to overcome it, and I hate we didn’t.”
The somber second half overshadowed a highlight-filled first half for the Panthers. After a fumbled kickoff led to a quick score for the Hornets, Elmore County answered in impressive fashion. Stephenson connected with Jabari Murphy for a 10-yard touchdown that capped a 7-play 62-yard drive.
Murphy followed the touchdown catch with an interception. Then the freshman wideout matched up with Stephenson again, this time for a 48-yard catch and run.
The Panther defense then forced a bruising four-and-out, including three running plays tackled for loss. Stephenson followed up with another long drive — seven plays, 63 yards — with the touchdown run in by junior Sean Darnell.
Beauregard running back Trent Jones answered back with a 6-yard touchdown run.
But the Panther offense answered right back with an 82-yard drive Stephenson finished off with a quick-snap dive for the 3-yard score. There were just under 30 seconds left to play in the half when Allen snagged the key interception that led to the disputed, momentum-shifting near-touchdown.
And the Hornets took over in the second half. The Panthers were unable to capitalize on a second Allen interception. Then Beauregard’s Trent Jones broke free for a 71-yard touchdown rumble to move the Hornets within one touchdown. .
On the following drive, Logan Pack — who’s been near-perfect all season on extra points — lined up for a 29-yard field goal but missed it just to the left.
Minutes later, Gavin Prickett and Keyshawn Tolefree connected on a 77-yard score to tie the game. The combo repeated the play, this time for only 29 yards, as the fourth quarter opened.
A final rushing score by Prickett cemented the finish at 42-28.
The Panthers finished with 269 yards of offense, to the Hornets’ 406 (300 of which came in the second half).
Stephenson finished the game 8-of-16 for 116 and two touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing, with 20 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Freshman receiver Jabari Murphy caught three passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
The Panthers were coming off a two week layoff after 22 players had to quarantine due to coronavirus contacts. Only Monday was the whole squad cleared to practice.
Cantrell said it definitely affected the team’s conditioning, but he stressed it didn’t excuse anything on the field.
“You can’t use that as an excuse,” he said. “Like I’ve said, we’re just going to have to keep working.”
We blew some coverages in the second half, and we didn’t produce when we needed to in the second half.