Panthers put on a show

Published 7:19 pm Sunday, October 8, 2017

By Kevin Eckleberry

LAGRANGE – It was a fireworks display at Callaway Stadium.

The LaGrange College Panthers and North Carolina Wesleyan Battling Bishops combined for more than 1,000 yards and 95 points in Saturday afternoon’s USA South showdown.

With quarterback Connor Blair throwing for 500 yards and six touchdowns, it was LaGrange College outlasting North Carolina Wesleyan 51-44 to get the critical home win.

The Panthers (3-3 overall) improved to 2-1 in the USA South, keeping them in the hunt for the conference title.

While it was a game dominated by the offenses, LaGrange College head coach Steve Pardue said it was a team win.

“We talk about it all the time, we’re not an offense or a defense, we’re just one football team,” Pardue said. “Some games, you may not score much, and some games you may score a bunch. But we’re going to stay together, and play as a team.”

The defense did make a critical play in the closing moments that secured the victory.

After a LaGrange College punt, N.C. Wesleyan got the ball at its own 20-yard line trailing by seven with 70 seconds remaining.

N.C. Wesleyan quarterback Donielle Totten took off on a run, and he was in LaGrange College territory when defensive back Brandon Ray delivered a big hit that forced the ball loose.

Peyton Haynes recovered the fumble to end the suspense.

The Panthers ran one kneel-down play, and the clock ran out.

“Obviously we had a really good game offensively, and our defense struggled a little bit, but they came through at the end when we needed them,” Pardue said.

That LaGrange College’s defense would make that stop was hardly a given considering how much success N.C. Wesleyan’s offense had during the game.

With the game on the line, though, the LaGrange College defense found a way.

“We were mainly just thinking, force a turnover, get them off the field, give the offense the ball so they can kill the clock, because they were out of timeouts at that point,” Haynes said. “So really we were just trying to loosen up the coverage a little bit, and just keep our heads.”

While the defense came through at the end, LaGrange College was victorious primarily because of the performance of Blair and the offense.

Blair, a senior who has set all sorts of school records, had one of his best days as a Panther.

Blair completed 33-of-50 passes for 500 yards with six touchdowns and one interception.

Nine different men caught passes, and Blair threw touchdown passes to five different receivers.

“The way our kids are catching the football, it’s almost gotten infectious,” Pardue said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Marcus Campbell was Blair’s favorite target with nine catches for 103 yards with two touchdowns, and Austin Sapp caught six balls for 125 yards with a touchdown.

David Apiag, a freshman from Northside High in Columbus, had five catches for 71 yards with a touchdown, and Djeimon Owens and Brendon Scott both had scoring receptions.

Kiontai Button had five catches, and Nicholas Searcy and Brendon Scott both had two receptions from the running-back position.

Searcy was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 14 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

The Panthers have been more committed to the run this season, but with Blair playing at such a high level, Pardue and offensive coordinator David Pleasants went with what worked on Saturday.

“I’m the one who traditionally wants to run it all the time,” Pardue said. “But I was telling the coaches if they are giving it to us, take it. All of our receivers are playing so well. It’s gotten to be contagions and everyone is making good catches. Connor does a good job of seeing the field and for the most part stays out of bad plays.”

For N.C. Wesleyan, explosive wide receiver Trey Lancaster had seven catches for 187 yards with two touchdowns, and Brandon Leake also had a scoring catch.

Deandre Gillis had 136 rushing yards on 17 attempts with a touchdown, and Adrian Minondo had a scoring run.

Nate Gardner threw for 229 yards with two touchdowns, and Totten also had a scoring pass.

The Panthers had a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter on Searcy’s 1-yard, but the Battling Bishops had plenty of fight left in them.

Twice after falling behind by 20 the Battling Bishops got as close as six, and they scored a touchdown with 1:39 remaining to make it a 51-44 game.

After an unsuccessful onside kick, LaGrange College ran three running plays and punted.

The Battling Bishops had a first down at their own 30 when Totten started running, and he crossed midfield before Ray forced the game-clinching fumble.

The Panthers have had some close losses this season, so they were happy to be the team celebrating after Saturday’s game.

“It’s huge as a team, and for the school in general to pull out the win,” Haynes said. “Now that we’ve got some momentum going, we’ll just keep it going to the next game.”

In a back-and-forth first half, it was LaGrange College taking a 23-17 lead at the break.

After N.C. Wesleyan scored an early touchdown to take the lead, LaGrange College tied it on a Blair 7-yard scoring pass to Campbell and Zachary Kudwa’s extra point.

The Panthers tackled a Battling Bishops’ ball-carrier in the backfield late in the first quarter for a safety, and the home team led 9-7.

After the free kick, Campbell’s 18-yard touchdown catch and Kudwa’s extra point gave the Panthers a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter.

N.C. Wesleyan scored a touchdown to get within two, but Apiag caught a 4-yard scoring catch from Blair with 22 seconds left in the half, and Kudwa’s extra point pushed the lead to 23-14.

The Battling Bishops kicked a field goal as the first half expired, and the Panthers led 23-17.

The Panthers scored on their first two possessions of the second half, and it looked like they could be headed for a comfortable win.

Blair threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Scott, and Searcy scored on a 1-yard run to put the Panthers on top 37-31.

Back came N.C. Wesleyan with back-to-back touchdowns, and LaGrange College’s lead was down by 37-31 with 14:45 to play.

It took the Panthers three plays to pad their lead, with Sapp catching a 57-yard pass from Blair and Kudwa’s kick putting the Battling Bishops in a 44-31 hole with 13:19 to play.

The Battling Bishops scored a touchdown of their own about a minute later, and once again the Panthers’ lead was down to six.

The Panthers answered with yet another touchdown, with Owens catching a 28-yard touchdown pass from Blair, and Kudwa’s kick extended the lead to 51-38 with 9:38 to play.

The scoring wasn’t done.

The Battling Bishops scored their fourth touchdown of the second half to get within seven with a little more than a minute remaining, but the comeback bid fell short.

“Anytime you get a conference win it’s a big deal, so I’m excited for our guys,” Pardue said.

Huntingdon leads the USA South with a 3-0 record, and LaGrange College is just a game behind.

LaGrange College hosts Huntingdon in the regular-season finale on Nov. 11.

“(Beating N.C. Wesleyan is) big for our confidence, because we still have Ferrum, and Greensboro, and Maryville, and Huntingdon coming up,” Searcy said. “If we win out, we could win a conference championship.”

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