Missed opportunities plague Panthers

Conner Reed (31) was all over the field on defense, leading the Panthers with 15 tackles and recording their lone sack. The Panthers came up just short in a 21-23 stinging loss to Highland.

Pekin came into their Homecoming game ranked #10 in A football, while their opponent, Highland, had just been knocked out of the rankings a week prior. The Panthers had their fair share of opportunities in the game but finished short 21-23 on September 28.

The boys in black got off to a rough start with a couple fumbles and an interception early in the first quarter of play. The Huskies took advantage of the field position, starting around their own 40 yard line, and got a quick score to take first blood. Trey Lasek displayed his ability to scramble which led to him getting out of containment and racing to the end zone to cap off a 60-yard run. Lasek would continue to be a thorn in the Panthers’ side all night long.

Following one of their other turnovers, the Huskies were looking to take even more of an early momentum in the game. They moved the ball down the field but were denied getting into the red zone, the Panther defense coming up strong by forcing a turnover on downs just inside the 30-yard line. The Pekin drive wouldn’t last long as Caleb Comstock tried to drop a ball into his receivers’ hands, but the pass came up short and was picked.

“We were resilient all night after making too many mistakes. We kept bouncing back and giving ourselves a chance,” Pekin coach Bud Blakely said. “Hats off to Highland, they came ready to play and we came out flat.”

The defense had another crucial sequence of plays, which started off with some rare pressure in the backfield, resulting in a QB sack by Conner Reed. The Huskies would come up short again, this time electing to punt the ball on fourth down. The Panthers stuck to the ground game and finally got some of the results they’d been looking for.

Dayne Eckley got a big carry, followed by a run from Lathe Crochet. The ball was moving downfield, and the sticks were finally moving for the Pekin offense. Eckley busted out another big run by slicing through the defensive line and cutting across the field, finally being brought down at the 10-yard line. A pass to the corner of the endzone was nearly caught but the Panther on the receiving end couldn’t bring it in fully. A false start penalty moved the ball back five yards, but the offense wouldn’t be denied as Comstock threaded a pass to Crochet for the score. The successful PAT tied things up at seven with six minutes left in the half.

“They kept us from making a big play and when they didn’t, we hurt them,” Blakely said. “I have all the confidence in the world in Caleb and our receivers, but we’ll continue to work on our passing game.”

Now with some momentum on their side, the defense used the energy the offense had found to stop the Huskies early on in their next possession. Pekin got the ball back with good field position, starting out just on the other side of midfield. The offensive line was starting to find some success up front, clearing some bigger holes for their tailbacks. Eckley found one and tore off a 40-yard run which he ended with a lunge to make sure he got across the pylon before the defense could bring him down. There was still a decent chunk of time in the first half, and Highland made sure they would use as much of it as possible.

The Huskies put together another methodical drive, getting down to the five before the Panther front started to push them back. Just when it seemed the Panthers had made the biggest stop of the half, the Huskies pulled out a QB keeper around the end to tie things up at 14. That score would prove to be pivotal as Highland would get the ball first in the second half.

Both teams came out of the break with the mentality of it being a new game, with the score being tied and neither team having an advantage in terms of holding the momentum. Highland ran over six minutes off the clock by continuing to rack up first downs. Their drive would come to an end as Lasek tried to fit in a pass on a third down play, which was intercepted by Crochet. The Panthers would go on to roll off even more time with their ground game but came up empty. The score remained tied at the end of a quick third quarter.

The Huskies initial drive in the early stages of the final quarter was almost a three and out, with the defense getting more pressure in the backfield and backing up Highland. On third and long, Lasek scrambled out and tried to find some running room along the sideline but was met by a host of Panthers, one of whom was flagged for a facemask. The Huskies would then convert on the short third down and keep their drive alive. Like their first drive in the third quarter, they continued to move the ball down the field and on another third down, Lasek was picked off again, this time by Comstock.

Pekin was unable to do much after getting another big defensive stop, punting the ball back away to Highland midway through the quarter. The Huskies would then turn to Lasek again, mostly keeping the ball himself on QB draw plays. Highland lined up in a similar formation the whole drive, which ended with a little dump down pass to their receiver who did the rest for the score.

The Panthers still had enough time left and two timeouts in their pocket to drive down the field and get a walk-off win. Everything was going right for them, getting short run plays to eat away at the clock and eventually getting first downs. With the ball just past midfield, Comstock threw a clutch pass to his receiver to nearly halve the distance to the end zone. Eckley then took the handoff and found a seam around the end, getting all the way to the one-yard line before going out of bounds. He would cap off the score by punching it in, followed by a PAT attempt to go up by four with two minutes left.

The tide had finally turned in Pekin’s favor as the score energized the crowd and the players on the sideline. One more stop on defense would nearly seal the game for the Panthers, but it wasn’t meant to be. Highland got another big play out of Lasek’s legs followed by a pass to the receiver who’d gotten behind the secondary, running it the rest of the way for a score. A missed PAT put the Huskies up 23-21 with just over 1:30 left in the game. Pekin would have one more chance to get the dramatic victory.

With most of the field left in front of them, the Panthers turned to their passing game to move the ball quicker. On the first play, Comstock tried scrambling out to the side to give his receivers time to get open. By that point he was swarmed by multiples Huskies for a sack, which led to more time running off the clock. Comstock tried again to find an open receiver as time started to wind down, but his pass came up short and was intercepted by Lasek. The Huskies took two kneels to run out the remainder of the clock, leaving a bitter taste in Pekin’s mouth.

Eckley had another huge game for the Panthers, rushing for 173 yards on 19 carries and two scores. Zach Hammes chipped in with 73 rushing yards and Crochet also had 30 rushing yards on three carries. The Panther defense played physical all night long in a hard-hitting game with Reed leading the way with 15 tackles, 11 solo tackles, two tackles for a loss of yards and recorded the lone sack. Tanner Bainbridge had nine tackles, eight solo tackles and Cael Baker had seven tackles, six solo tackles. The secondary also had a couple big interceptions, one by Comstock and one by Crochet.

“Right now, we’re our own worst enemy,” Blakely said. “We do a pretty good job of beating ourselves and we need to clean some things up. This one is going to sting for a while.”

The Panthers will try to regroup before they face another tough District opponent by traveling to BGM on October 5.