By Stephen Bubalo PrepsKC staff writer
Tyler Brown’s teammates can’t bust his chops anymore.
The Oak Grove junior running back has been hearing it from his teammates all season that he can’t break the big run, about how he’s always getting caught.
But Brown broke loose for a 59-yard momentum-changing touchdown run Friday night against Excelsior Springs that helped catapult the Panthers to a 49-13 win, capping a perfect 9-0 regular season.
“I just went right up the middle,” Brown said. “I broke the linebacker and ran all the way. People have been making fun of me on the sidelines that I’m not breaking those big runs.”
Panthers’ head coach Pat Richard knew Brown was bound to break one soon. And he did it at a good time, as he turned a 21-13 lead into a more comfortable 28-13 advantage late in the third quarter.
“We’ve been waiting all year for that,” Richard said of the long touchdown run. “So many times he’s broken out and he gets caught. That was a big play at a big time.”
Brown’s big run was set up by a crucial stop by the Panther defense.
Oak Grove had taken a 21-0 early in the second half when the Tigers mounted their comeback. Tiger quarterback Austin Lewis started it off with a 44-yard touchdown run, which was quickly followed by an Oak Grove fumbled snap. The Tigers recovered and two plays later were in the end zone again to make it 21-13.
Another Panther fumble, this one by Aaron Graham, gave the Tigers the ball on the Panther 41.
But, like it has done all year, the Oak Grove defense came up huge in a big spot, stopping Lewis short on a fourth-and-6 play to give the offense the ball back. Three plays later Brown was running for the end zone.
“That was tremendous,” linebacker Ethan Fugitt said. “The defensive line put a stop on them. The defense has been doing its job. Everyone knows their responsibility.”
Added Richard of the defense, “They continually rise up. We put them in some tough situations tonight. It’s so nice to be able to call plays on offense and know that if you make a mistake the defense will pick you up.”
If that momentum shift wasn’t damaging enough for the Tigers, they would misplay the ensuing kickoff – the second time they did that in the game – and the Panthers would recover and score four plays later when quarterback Jonathan Latshaw found Levi Harmon from 15 yards out on fourth-and-9 to make it 35-13.
“That kills you,” Tigers head coach Andy Sims said of the turnovers on the kickoffs. “Our guys should have been anticipating that. They were being too cautious. You have to take the fight to teams like this.”
Mistakes were a problem all game for Excelsior Springs, as they finished with five turnovers, three turnovers on downs and had a touchdown called back on a holding penalty just before the half.
“You’re not going to beat an undefeated team when you make as many mistakes as we did,” Sims said. “And we had them all around, in the kicking game, on offense and on defense. That falls on my shoulders.”
After a scoreless opening quarter, Brown and Fugitt scored on touchdown runs in the second quarter to make it 13-0 at the half. Graham added two scoring runs in the second half of 24 and 38 yards, respectively, while Brown tacked on his second of the game in the fourth quarter from 1 yard out.
With the postseason looming next week, Sims said the key now is to make sure this loss doesn’t linger.
“We can’t let this team beat us twice,” he said. “We have to prep and focus for week one. That’s how the playoffs are won.”
Meanwhile, for the Panthers, Friday night will be about celebrating the first perfect regular season since 1999 and the school’s first-ever Missouri River Valley Conference West division title.
“We’ll take tonight and enjoy it,” Richard said. “The seniors were 0-10 as freshmen and to be 9-0 right now is a tribute to them.”
After tonight, though, it’s back to business.
“We have to picture it like the beginning of the year,” Brown said of the playoffs. “We have to picture it as everyone is as good as anybody out there.”
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