ERIE, Ill. — Moments after the final buzzer had sounded in Erie/Prophetstown's 54-38 loss to Sterling Newman, E/P quarterback Ethan Howard stood alone in front of the goalpost for what seemed like an eternity, trying to figure out how it all went wrong.
How had the Panthers, seemingly unstoppable in the first half, coughed up a 23-point lead? How had they only produced one touchdown in the second half after threatening to blow the Comets out before halftime? Worst of all, how had Newman managed to score 47 of the game's final 55 points?
The answer was a simple one. The Comets had simply taken over the game in the second half.
After surviving a nearly flawless 21 minutes of football from E/P, Newman rode four Jake Snow touchdowns and a pair of defensive scores to swing both the momentum and the game from the Panthers' hands. Brady Rude got into the act in the second half with a pair of touchdowns for Newman and E/P never recovered. The Panthers watched the Comets outscore them 24-0 over the game's final 22 minutes to earn their 11th consecutive victory over E/P on Friday night at Erie Middle School.
“This one hurts,” Panthers senior running back Jordan Chandler said. “We had them, but we just didn't step up in the second half. Hats off to Newman, they played a good football game and didn't quit.”
The Comets (6-1, 4-0 Three Rivers North) had every reason to call it a night in the first half after putting up no resistance to the Panthers' trio of Chandler, Nick Williams and Chris Bauer. From the first possession of the game, the three E/P seniors found themselves with gaping holes to run through against the vaunted Blue Machine defense, leading to several big gains.
The trio combined for an even 300 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the first half, with only Bauer's 2-yard score coming from inside the 10-yard line as E-P built a 30-7 lead. In retrospect, the first half proved too easy for the Panthers (5-2, 3-1), which came back to haunt them.
“In the first half, we were running great,” said Williams, who finished the evening with 242 yards. “Everybody was doing what they were doing, but I think we got a little too high on our horse. We started doubting Newman's defense, but they have a great defense. We really couldn't do much about it once we lost our momentum.”
The loss of momentum came suddenly on a single play near the end of the half, which left Howard in despair more than an hour later. With the Panthers leading 30-13 and 1:39 left until halftime, Howard attempted to go for the knockout and forced a pass to the right side of the field into the hands of two Comets.
Dillan Heffelfinger was the one who eventually got both hands on the ball, taking it back 29 yards for the score. Instead of being out of the game at halftime, the Comets had every reason to be confident after being dominated by E/P but trailing by just nine points.
“That really got our heads down when that happened,” Williams said. “We couldn't get back up to where we were running offensively, because we were too afraid and thinking too much. They really got the ball rolling and kept running with it. They had great momentum, and it was hard to stop them when they got up there.”
The Panthers never found an answer, getting their last gasp when Chandler broke free for his third score of the game, a 64-yard run with 9:44 left in the third. But E-P didn't have another second-half play go for 20 yards or more until Howard managed a 20-yard scamper on the game's final play.
Meanwhile, the Comets broke off five such plays in the final two quarters. All five either went for or set up touchdowns, allowing Newman to clinch at least a share of the Three Rivers' North Division title while denying E-P's effort to seal its second straight playoff berth.
The Panthers will have to wait until at least next week's game against Morrison to seal a playoff bid, which was where coach Chuck Milem and the Panthers chose to focus.
“We're 5-2, and I'm not complaining at all,” Chandler said. “This one hurts, but we're still exactly where we need to be.”
STERLING NEWMAN 54, ERIE/PROPHETSTOWN 38
Sterling Newman 7 14 14 19 — 54
Erie/Prophetstown 14 16 8 0 — 38
EP — Nick Williams 68 run (kick failed) 9:26
N — Jake Snow 1 run (Brandon Ahlgrim kick), 3:57
EP — Jordan Chandler 70 run (Williams run), 2:27
EP — Chris Bauer 2 run (Chandler run), 6:54
EP — Chandler 18 run (Ethan Howard run), 3:25
N — Snow 17 run (run failed), 1:46
N — Dillan Heffelfinger 29 interception return (Bryce Ivey pass from A.J. Sharp), 1:28
N — Snow 55 run (Ahlgrim kick), 11:10
EP — Chandler 64 run (Chandler run), 9:44
N — Brady Rude 3 run (Ahlgrim kick), 5:11
N — Snow 2 run (kick blocked), 11:24
N — Trevor Bolin 25 interception return (Ahlgrim kick), 9:49
N — Rude 74 run (kick blocked), 2:05
RUSING: Sterling Newman (Jake Snow 16-180, Brady Rude 5-97, Elliot Jensen 10-90, Brandon Ahlgrim 1-13, A.J. Sharp 1-(-7)); Erie/Prophetstown (Nick Williams 37-242, Jordan Chandler 7-158, Ethan Howard 12-70, Chris Bauer 6-56).
PASSING: Sterling Newman (A.J. Sharp 2-5-66-0-0); Erie/Prophetstown (Ethan Howard 1-4-3-0-2).
RECEIVING: Sterling Newman (Shayne Allen 1-53, Bryce Ivey 1-13); Erie/Prophetstown (Nick Williams 1-3).