As the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter of Friday’s rivalry game between the Powell Panthers and the visiting Cody Broncs, a quick look at the Panthers’ sideline told the story.
Junior linebacker Brody Karhu paced back and forth, longing to get back in the game but unable. Teammate Carson Olsen lay prone on the bench with an icepack on his leg. Further down the line, center Seth Horton sat with his helmet off as members of the training staff treated him for a neck injury.
As is the case whenever these two teams meet, Friday’s contest was a slugfest, with each team suffering its share of casualties. When the dust finally settled, the defending state champion Broncs (5-1, 2-1 3A West) were left standing, but only after coming from behind to win 22-10.
“I’m so proud of these kids and how hard they fight,” Powell head coach Aaron Papich said of his squad. “They’re such a tough group of kids. The one thing we can control is how we respond to adversity, and I didn’t see any give-up in these kids. We control our effort and attitude, and I think they did a good job with that.”
Defense was the name of the game from the start. After a three-and-out by the Panthers (1-5, 0-3) on their opening drive, Cody wasted no time in marching into Powell territory. The promising drive would stall at the Panther 18, however, as Powell’s defensive front, coupled with a pair of untimely penalties, took Cody out of scoring position back to the Panther 33. The Broncs went for it on fourth down but were unable to convert, giving the Panthers the ball and an early defensive victory.
“These kids can take a lot and keep on fighting,” Papich said. “I’m amazed at how much they can take and how hard they push and continue to go each play. I was very happy with that defensive stand.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the Broncs got things going with their first drive in the second, highlighted by a 25-yard reception by Cody Phillips from quarterback Hunter Hays. The play set up a 28-yard field goal by Charlie Beaudrie with nine minutes left in the half, giving the Broncs their first lead of the game at 3-0. The drive took a heavier toll on Powell in terms of personnel, as Karhu limped to the sidelines following a tackle and didn’t return.
Powell responded with a sustained drive of its own, led by hard runs by Kaelan Groves and Kadden Abraham behind a power-I formation, with lineman Sawyer Mauthe lining up as a blocking back. The Panthers rode the power I into Cody territory, and on a third and long, a pass interference penalty by Cody gave Powell a first down at the 17-yard line. The Broncs’ defense buckled down, holding the Panthers to a field goal attempt. Freshman kicker Hawkin Sweeney once again proved clutch under pressure, drilling a 34-yard field goal to tie the game at 3-3.
A nice return on the ensuing kickoff gave Cody the ball in Panther territory. Powell’s defense appeared to come up with another big stop, but on fourth and long with 25 seconds left in the half, Hays hit Phillips on a 35-yard pass for a touchdown. The Panthers blocked the point after, and went into the half trailing 9-3. Powell managed just 53 yards of total offense in the first half, compared to 133 for the Broncs — almost half of which were the result of two big plays through the air.
“I told the guys at the half they were doing a great job,” Papich said. “Their [Cody’s] gameplan from the beginning was to get Beaudrie going with the run game. They obviously executed on that fourth and 10 [touchdown pass], but I think they had to resort to something else to do that. What we came out to do that first half, I thought we did a nice job.”
Powell’s defense came up big to start the second half, forcing a fumble on Cody’s first play from scrimmage. Panther defensive end Carson Heinen came up with the ball, and Powell was back in business at Cody’s 30-yard line. After driving down to the 9-yard line, quarterback Ethan Asher found Colton Johannsen in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Sweeney’s extra point gave the Panthers a 10-9 lead with just under eight minutes to play in the third quarter.
“[Asher and Johannsen] had found a soft spot in their defense earlier, and communicated that to our coaches,” Papich said. “We thought that pass would be a successful play, and it sure was. We were really happy with that.”
Cody retook the lead late in the third, following a blocked punt that gave the Broncs good field position. After a pair of penalties seemingly moved them out of scoring range, Hays again came up big, completing a 46-yard pass to Tristan Blatt on third-and-20, who was brought down at the Panther 2-yard line. Beaudrie, who came into the game as the state’s third-leading rusher, scored on the next play to give the Broncs a 15-10 lead, but the two-point conversion failed.
“Football is a big momentum game, and Cody did a good job with their game plan,” Papich said. “They executed late, and it was difficult to hang with them after that. But our guys still continued to fight.”
With just under eight minutes to play in the game, the Panthers were poised to make a comeback following an Abraham sack that forced a Cody punt. But Groves was stripped of the ball on the first play from scrimmage, giving Cody possession on the Panther 16. Beaudrie scored on the next play and the PAT was good, pushing Cody’s lead to 22-10. With the Panthers unable to get anything going offensively over the final seven minutes, the Broncs were able to hold on for the conference win.
Injuries force substitutions
The war of attrition continued in the second half for the Panthers with the loss of Olsen, Kanyon Gann and Horton. Papich said he’s not yet sure of the extent of the injuries to that trio and Karhu, though he’s hopeful they will be available for Friday’s game at Green River.
“We’ll find out this week how those guys are doing,” Papich said. “I sure hope that they’re going to be OK. I’m really happy with the guys that filled in — Zack Griffin at center, and with Olsen and Karhu out, we even had Sawyer [Mauthe] back there in our jumbo package on offense. Kaelan Groves and Kadden Abraham did a good job filling in for those two guys the entire game, not only on offense, but on defense.”
Defense was once again the bright spot for the Panthers, shutting down Cody’s potent running attack and forcing them to go to the air. Cody finished with 330 total yards to go along with a whopping 110 yards in penalties. Ranked third in the state coming into the game, running back Beaudrie was held to just 40 yards on the ground, though he did score twice.
“Our guys knew we had to shut him [Beaudrie] down to have a chance,” Papich said. “That’s all we can ask for, is to put our kids in a position where they have a chance to win, and I think we did that.”
Groves led the team with 13 defensive points, followed by 11 from Abraham. Mauthe finished with nine points, while Heinen, Adrian Gellar and Johannsen finished with eight apiece.
“Kaelan Groves did a really good job in this game,” Papich said. “He’s a tough kid, and one thing you’ll get from him is he’s going to show up to work. You can always expect that effort from him.”
Offensively, the Panthers managed just 142 yards, 85 on the ground and 57 through the air. Groves was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 46 yards, followed by 29 from Abraham.
Asher finished eight for 18 for 57 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Heinen and Johannsen each had two receptions for 27 and 20 yards, respectively, with Johannsen scoring the lone touchdown on the night.
With just two games left in the regular season, the Panthers will need to win out and get a little help to make the playoffs. Standing in their way is Green River (1-5, 0-3), who Powell will face on the road on Friday, and then at home against Jackson (5-1, 2-1) next week. Jackson lost its first game of the season last week to Star Valley.
If the Panthers have yet to play their best ball, these next two weeks will be the time to do it.
For his part, Papich said he can’t imagine another group he’d rather face the next two weeks with.
“If I were ever in a difficult position where I needed someone to help me, I’d pick any one of those kids to stand with me,” Papich said. “They’re tough kids and they’re fighters, and I’m really proud of them.”