Opening-day thriller for Panthers

Published 12:28 pm Monday, September 4, 2017

By Kevin Eckleberry

LAGRANGE – It was an opening-day thriller.

The LaGrange College Panthers rallied from a 16-3 halftime deficit to surge ahead with less than three minutes remaining in Saturday’s season opener at Callaway Stadium, but it was Birmingham Southern coming through with the game-winning touchdown with one minute left to capture the 29-25 victory.

It was a heart-breaking loss for the Panthers, but first-year head coach Steve Pardue was pleased with what he saw from his team in the second half.

“I was really proud of the way we came out in the second half and answered the bell,” Pardue said. “We’re not taking any moral victories or anything, but I’m really proud of how they responded to adversity. That’s something we’ll have to do. I know it’s not going to be a quick fix, but if we keep giving the effort we gave today and keep battling, I think we’re going to be OK.”

Saturday’s game featured a frantic finish that saw the teams combine for three touchdowns in the final four minutes.

After Birmingham Southern scored with 3:35 to play, LaGrange College answered less than a minute later on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Connor Blair to freshman David Apiag.

A two-point conversion run by Nicholas Searcy gave LaGrange College a 25-22 lead.

Birmingham Southern, taking advantage of a pair of unsportsmanlike penalties, began the ensuing possession in LaGrange College territory, and Kerrigan Pennington’s 28-yard strike to Buddy Dowd proved to be the game-winner.

The Panthers began their final possession at their 41-yard line, and they had 55 seconds left to work with, but the game ended with an interception on fourth down.

“The first half we did some things you can’t do to win football games,” Pardue said. “As the game went on, I think we got better.”

The Panthers did a lot of things right in the losing effort.

LaGrange College out-gained Birmingham Southern by more than 100 yards, and it enjoyed a nearly 20-minute edge in time of possession.

Senior quarterback Connor Blair looked comfortable in a new offensive system, and he completed 15-of-31 passes for 262 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, and he had a scoring run.

Marcus Campbell had five catches for 112 yards, and Apiag and Juwan Brown both had touchdown receptions.

Searcy had 64 hard-earned yards on 18 carries, and he got stronger as the game went along.

“I looked at the numbers, and we have the ball 39 minutes, and they had it 19. That’s what we want to be,” Pardue said. “We want to control the football, and be able to run. And we threw for almost 300 yards, so we made some big pass plays down the field. Defensively, we played well. We gave up a couple of big plays.”

After a scoreless first quarter, Birmingham Southern’s Ryder Andrews made a 25-yard field goal with 14:08 left in the first half.

LaGrange College responded with its lone scoring drive of the opening half, going 65 yards in eight plays, with Zachary Kudwa tying the game with a 25-yard field goal.

It was Birmingham Southern’s defense that put the next points on the scoreboard.

Blaine Loveless recovered a fumble and rumbled 24 yards for the touchdown, and the Panthers trailed 10-3 with 7:43 left in the half.

Birmingham Southern scored again a little more than two minutes later, with Pennington’s 28-yard keeper putting LaGrange College in a 16-3 hole.

The Panthers threatened to bite into the deficit in the closing moments of the half.

Alex Scott came into the game to get some snaps at quarterback, and he completed a 40-yard pass to Campbell to the Birmingham Southern 8-yard line.

The drive stalled, though, and Blair threw an interception on fourth down, and Birmingham Southern took a 16-3 lead to the break.

Momentum began to change in the third quarter.

After the defense made a stop, the Panthers went 86 yards in five plays, with Blair throwing a 64-yard touchdown pass to Brown, and Kudwa’s extra point made it a 16-10 game with 10:54 left in the third quarter.

On Birmingham Southern’s next possession, Shamar Slappy tackled Pennington on fourth down to give the ball back to LaGrange College’s offense.

The Panthers went to work, grinding out a 63-yard scoring drive that lasted nearly eight minutes, and Blair’s 8-yard touchdown run followed by Kudwa’s extra point gave the home team a 17-16 lead with 24 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

That’s the way it remained until Birmingham Southern’s defense made a momentum-turning play, with Cedric Campbell picking off a Blair pass and returning it 46 yards.

That led to a 38-yard touchdown pass from Pennington to Damian Mitchell, and Birmingham Southern led 22-17 with 3:35 remaining.

When the Panthers got the ball back, they were looking at third-and-long when Apiag got behind the defense and hauled in the pass from Blair for a 72-yard touchdown, and Searcy’s two-point run made it a 25-22 game.

Following the touchdown, the Panthers were called for an excessive celebration penalty, so they had to kick off from 15 yards further back.

Then on the kickoff, LaGrange College was hit with another unsportsmanlike penalty, so Birmingham Southern only needed to go 47 yards for a potential game-winning score.

“We’ve got to handle things better,” Pardue said. “We scored that touchdown, and we got a celebration penalty of 15 yards. On top of that, we get a penalty on the kickoff return. We gave them 30 yards.”

After converting a fourth-down play, Birmingham Southern took the lead on Pennington’s perfect, over-the-shoulder throw to Dowd.

When Dylan Main picked off a pass on LaGrange College’s final possession, the suspense was over.

LaGrange College will look for its first win on Saturday when it visits Berry College.

“We’re going to take it, and learn from it, and keep going forward,” Pardue said.

OF NOTE: For more photos, check out