“It all starts with the defensive line,” said Widdicombe, who now has three pick-six interceptions in the last two games. “Those guys were getting a push and making the quarterback have to throw the ball. I was just able to read where he was looking and get to the right place.”
Widdicombe’s first interception came just 57 seconds after senior Vince Sleep had rumbled across the goal line from a yard out to give the Panthers a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. Three plays into Cody’s ensuing offensive series, the junior defensive back broke on a short out route by the Broncs. Widdicombe deflected the pass, then ran under the carom in stride to carry the return to the end zone untouched.
Widdicombe’s second interception was less dramatic — the ball was thrown directly at the Panthers’ DB late in the third quarter — but ended in similar fashion as Widdicombe received congratulations in the end zone from teammates. That score stretched the Panthers’ lead to 35-0. Powell capped the scoring, fittingly enough, with another interception return for a score as Sleep jumped to snare a pass across the middle before returning it roughly 50 yards.
Even when the Panthers’ defense wasn’t scoring on interception returns, it was still making plays.
The Panthers’ first score of the game was set up by a fumble three plays into the contest as a hard hit from Powell’s defense dislodged the football and sent it bounding along the ground. After recovering at the Cody 33, the Panthers needed nine plays, but eventually scored on a 5-yard pass from Hayden Cragoe to Dewey Schwahn to go up.
Sophomore Carter Baxter, pressed into a starting role on defense due to linebacker Brendon Phister sitting out the contest for precautionary reasons after a head injury suffered against Worland the previous week, had a standout night, stripping the football from a Cody ball carrier and returning it inside the Bronc 30. Baxter also had a pass breakup and multiple tackles as he amassed 17 defensive points — an entire game’s worth — in the first quarter.
Baxter added to that tally early in the second period, breaking on the football for the Panthers’ first interception of the contest. Baxter nearly returned the pickoff for a score, but his diving lunge for the end zone pylon was ruled to have taken him out of bounds inside the Bronc 1. That set the stage for Sleep’s short scoring run.
“The defensive line was taking care of their guys,” Baxter said. “It gave us a lot of room to make plays.”
After Widdicombe’s first defensive touchdown of the contest extended Powell’s lead to 21-0, the Panthers’ defense came up big again. Momentum appeared to have shifted slightly as the Broncs intercepted Cragoe and returned the ball to the Powell 24. That jubilation proved short-lived, however. Powell forced a 9-yard loss on the Bronc’s first snap. On the next play, Cragoe atoned for his miscue by intercepting his eighth pass of the season, returning the ball all the way to the Cody 39 to flip the field position.
Six plays later, Sleep was back in the end zone, having carried the football seven yards on his second touchdown run of the night. The score gave the Panthers a 28-0 lead at intermission.
Powell’s only second-half points came on the interception returns for scores by Widdicombe and Sleep.
Altogether, the Panthers’ defense accounted for more yardage via interception and fumble returns than Powell’s offense amassed on Friday night. While impressive, it was a stat that did not sit well with Powell head coach Jim Stringer following the game.
“We didn’t play well on the offensive side of the ball,” Stringer said. “A good number of kids were not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We need to go back and make sure kids know what their responsibility is on every play, because we need it to be a 100 percent, 11-man effort on every offensive play. Otherwise we’re not going to be nearly as successful as we were the first half of the year. We’re going to fix those things in a big hurry.”
For the game, Powell managed 222 yards on 53 offensive plays. More than a quarter of that total came on a big run by Sleep early in the third quarter. The Powell senior finished with 90 yards on nine carries as nobody else managed to surpass 25 yards along the ground.
The Panthers were also 8-for-15 through the air for 51 yards. Powell turned the ball over twice in the contest, including one red zone fumble inside the Cody 1.
By contrast, Cody could gain just 120 yards against the Panthers Class 3A’s top defensive unit. Powell defenders caught more balls than Bronc receivers did as Cody completed just three of its 17 pass attempts for 11 yards.
Like the Panthers, more than a quarter of Cody’s offense for the game came from a single play, in this case a 35-yard run late in the first quarter.
With the victory, the Panthers improve to 7-0 on the season and 4-0 in 3A West play. Powell hosts Green River, which fell 42-0 to Star Valley on Friday, to close the regular season. A victory delivers both the conference title and home field advantage through the playoffs to Powell. Kickoff is 7 p.m. this Friday.