It’s another heart-breaker for Panthers
Published 12:00 am Monday, September 14, 2015
ROME – The LaGrange College Panthers were hoping to spoil the party.
On Saturday evening in Rome, the Berry College Vikings were playing their debut game in their new on-campus stadium, and their opponent was the Panthers.
It looked like the Panthers were about to be the first team to win in the new stadium when they got the to the 5-yard line in the game’s waning moments needing a field goal or a touchdown to win it.
But the Panthers got neither.
The Panthers went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and the Vikings made the stop, and the game went to overtime.
After LaGrange College didn’t score on its first overtime possession, Berry College got a field goal from Mitchell Blanchard, sending the home team to a dramatic and memorable 16-13 victory.
While the Vikings celebrated, the Panthers were left having to deal with a second consecutive heart-breaking loss to begin the season.
In the season opener, LaGrange College lost to Birmingham Southern 29-28 after leading by nine points late in the game.
“We have to start playing better,” LaGrange College head coach Matt Mumme said. “We’ve got a team coming to us next week (Ave Maria) that’s a Division II team, a scholarship program, so we’ll be tested next week, too. We’ll have to do some things to try to slow down what they’ve got, and try to get our offense just to be a little more consistent.”
The Panthers were in great shape late in regulation when Lavell Meeks made a sensational catch for a 45-yard completion to the 5-yard line with one minute remaining.
A pair of running plays put the ball on the 1-yard line, and on third down, Nick Searcy took the handoff from quarterback Connor Blair, and while Mumme and those on the LaGrange College side of the field thought he crossed the goal line, the officials ruled otherwise.
On fourth down with 39 seconds remaining, Mumme decided not to put the game in the hands of a field-goal unit he didn’t have much confidence in.
Blair attempted to score on the quarterback sneak, but Berry’s defense was up to the challenge and he was stopped short.
“I just haven’t been able to trust our field-goal unit enough that I felt 100 percent certain that we could make it from the one,” Mumme said.
Berry attempted a long pass on first down that was incomplete, and LaGrange College used its final two timeouts on the next two plays.
The Vikings had to punt, but time ran out after the ball went over the head of the LaGrange College returner, and it was on to overtime.
LaGrange College got the ball first in overtime.
After an 8-yard completion from Blair to Marsalis Jackson on first down, the Panthers went nowhere on their next two plays, and Alec Frear’s 35-yard field-goal attempt missed to the left.
Needing a field goal to win it, the Vikings went conservative and ran three running plays.
Blanchard entered the game with a sell-out crowd on its feet, and he split the uprights with his 38-yard attempt, and that was that.
As difficult as the loss was to take for the Panthers, it was a thrilling moment for the Vikings, as well as their head coach Tony Kunczewski, the former defensive coordinator at LaGrange College.
“It’s tough to even put into words, really,” Kunczewski said. “We have talked about our first win last year on Mountain Day and how big that one was. Well I don’t know, but this one may have topped it.”
In his second start, LaGrange College sophomore quarterback Connor Blair completed 36-of-49 passes for 320 yards, and he threw touchdown passes to Ervens Oge and Untorrey Thomas.
Oge, who had two scoring catches in the first game, caught eight balls for 83 yards against Berry.
Thomas added five catches for 64 yards with a 7-yard touchdown.
The Panthers had 422 yards of offense and Blair threw for more than 300 yards for the second straight game, but they were unable to get much going in the second half when they were held scoreless.
A superb effort by the LaGrange College defense, which only gave up one touchdown and forced four turnovers, kept the team within range.
The Vikings’ only points in the second half, not counting overtime, came on a field goal in the fourth quarter.
“The defense really played well and I really like what we are doing on that side of the ball,” Mumme said.
As proficient as Blair has been running Mumme’s pass-oriented offense, he is still in the early stages of his collegiate career, and he’s following in the footsteps of a two-time All-American in Graham Craig.
“It’s hard. Graham Craig did such a good job for two years, and that pressure falls on Connor,” Mumme said. “It’s going to take time. People have to understand that.”
In a turnover-plagued first half, LaGrange College led Berry 13-10.
On their opening possession, the Panthers carved right through the Vikings’ defense, going 58 yards in seven plays, with Blair hooking up with Oge for a 23-yard touchdown.
Frear made the extra point, and the Panthers led 7-0.
After that, both teams were bitten by the turnover bug.
In a span of 10 plays, there were four total turnovers, two by each team.
For the Panthers, Brandon Penn had an interception, and Shamar Slappy recoverd a fumble.
Later in the first quarter, following a LaGrange College punt, Berry needed just three plays to go 55 yards for a touchdown to pull even at 7-7.
Dale Jackson found Chris Lilly for a 19-yard touchdown pass, moments after those two hooked up for a 26-yard completion.
The Panthers answered with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up nearly seven minutes.
Blair was sharp on the drive, completing 7-of-8 passes to six different receivers.
After Searcy had a 2-yard run on fourth-and-one, the Panthers were at the Berry 13-yard line.
Three plays later, on third down, Thomas went up and grabbed a Blair pass in the end zone for a 7-yard scoring catch.
In a play that would have major implications later since the game ended tied at the close of regulation, the extra-point attempt was blocked, and LaGrange College led 13-7.
On its next drive, Berry College made it deep into LaGrange territory, but it had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Blanchard to make it a 13-10 game, and that was the score at the half.
After the halftime break, it was time for the defenses to take over.
The only points in the second half came when Blanchard made a 41-yard field goal with 9:30 to play to tie it at 13-13.
The Panthers had some trouble on the ensuing kickoff, and they ended up starting the possession from their own 8-yard line.
Blair completed a couple of clutch passes on third down, though, and the Panthers made it to near midfield before the drive stalled.
On fourth-and-11 from their own 46, the Panthers lined up as if they were going to go for it.
When Blair took the shotgun snap, though, he punted, and the ball was downed at the Berry College 3-yard line.
The Vikings managed one first down and punted, and the Panthers took over at midfield with more than a minute remaining.
On first down, Blair threw it deep toward Meeks, who was well-covered, but the junior made the over-the-shoulder catch at the 5-yard line.
From there it looked like the game and the day would belong to the Panthers, but the Vikings stiffened defensively and made the big stop on fourth down before winning it in overtime.
PANTHER LEADERS: Demetrius Rodgers led the Panthers with 10 tackles, and Nick Raszeja had 10 tackles with a sack. Jordan Daniels and Brandon Penn each had an interception, and Shamar Slappy had a fumble recovery. On offense, Blair completed 36-of-49 passes for 325 yards with two touchdowns. Ervens Oge had eight catches for 83 yards with a 23-yard touchdown, and he became the program’s all-time leader in career receiving yards with 1,530. Untorrey Thomas had five catches for 64 yards with a 7-yard touchdown. Lord Smith led the rushing attack with nine carries for 38 yards.
UP NEXT: LaGrange College (0-2) will host Ave Maria (0-2) on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports