The Creston/O-M Panthers jumped back into a first-place tie in Class 3A District 1 with their historic 34-14 homecoming victory over Harlan Friday night.
With ADM’s 28-27 loss to Atlantic, the top of District 1 now has a four-team logjam at the top — Creston/O-M, Harlan, Lewis Central and ADM — all with one loss. ADM and Creston/O-M are each 3-1 in district play, while Harlan and LC are 2-1.
Harlan, ranked second in Class 3A last week by the Des Moines Register, fell to No. 9 on Sunday. Creston/O-M rose from ninth to seventh. Associated Press ratings are updated Tuesday, with Harlan and Creston/O-M ranking sixth and eighth, respectively, going into Friday’s game.
Creston/O-M, which took a 13-0 lead on two early Harlan turnovers, trailed 14-13 at halftime, but dominated play in the final two periods. Tailback Bryce McIlravy had 111 yards rushing in the second half as the Panther ground game chewed up first downs and the clock in a 14-0 fourth quarter.
Harlan’s pass-oriented offense was disrupted by the Panthers’ pass rush and three interceptions by Panthers Brandon Phipps, Briar Evans and Luke Neitzel. Harlan quarterback Adam Juhl finished 20-of-37 for 218 yards passing with three interceptions and one TD.
Creston/O-M quarterback Luke Neitzel had three rushing touchdowns and 130 yards on the ground. McIlravy had a 7-yard TD run in his 129-yard night.
Phipps returned his interception 87 yards for a touchdown to give the Panthers a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. Earlier in the period, two Panther defensive players who had big nights — end Keaton Hulett and linebacker Trevor Frain — combined on a big play. Frain jarred the ball loose from Juhl, and Hulett returned the loose ball to the Harlan 36-yard line.
Five plays later, the Panthers were on the board first on Neitzel’s 10-yard run.
On Harlan’s next series, the Cyclones were clicking in their short-passing game, marching from their own 47 to the Panther 17. Then, Phipps made the play of the night, covering slot receiver Brandon Bjoin on a sideline route.
“He ran an out route. I read it and jumped it,” said Phipps, who ran 87 yards with the interception. “Guys were blocking downfield for me.”
It wasn’t the start veteran Harlan coach Curt Bladt had in mind for his team in a tough road game.
“Fumble here and they go down and score,” Bladt said tersely afterward, “then an interception and they go 90 yards and score. I mean, you can’t do that!”
The big plays proved valuable, as Harlan’s offense gained its rhythm during the rest of the half in taking a 14-13 lead. Juhl finished the half 13-of-18 for 153 yards and a touchdown.
The second half was a totally different story. Rushing, Harlan had 4 yards on 3 carries, all in the third quarter. Creston/O-M ran for 171 yards on 34 attempts. Through the air, Harlan was 7-for-19 for 65 yards and two big fourth-quarter interceptions by Evans and Neitzel. Creston/O-M was 1-for-3 on a 46-yard completion from Neitzel to Maxx Walters that set up the go-ahead TD by Neitzel in the third period.
“I was running straight down the field,” Walters said. “The guy was right with me. I was playing like it was going right at me, and then went off to the side to catch the ball.”
“Maxx made a great read on the ball,” Neitzel said.
Commentators on Medicacom’s MC22 broadcast of the game noted the second-half blocking of Creston/O-M’s offensive line and fullback Trevor Frain. It was exemplified best on the final scoring drive, eating up 83 yards and seven minutes of clock on 14 plays, culminated by McIlravy’s 7-yard jaunt through a crease to the end zone.
“They controlled us up front and did everything they wanted to do, and we did nothing,” Bladt said. “That’s exactly what happened. Some guys didn’t give us a good effort tonight, and we gotta get that changed.”
“The guys up front did a great job of getting a push,” McIlravy said.
At halftime, changes were made to adjust to Harlan’s defensive alignment designed to squeeze the ends and take away Creston’s gap scheme. Frain ran in motion less, and performed effectively as a lead blocker for gains by Neitzel and McIlravy.
“We changed some things up,” guard Cole Tanner said. “We did a lot more counters, some pulling, and that helped open up some holes.”
Defensively, Creston/O-M came out in its nickel package in the second half, moving more people into the short passing lanes and forcing Juhl to look downfield against the twin safety coverage of Evans and Neitzel. McIlravy and Kainen Somers were coverage corners, after starter Caleb Thompson left with a lower leg injury.
The move to nickel proved effective as the three-man front of mostly Hulett, Tanner and Nate Robinson executed a good pass rush. End Adam Baker was also involved in chasing Juhl.
Twice on interceptions, Juhl was being hit by Hulett on his release.
“It’s kind of disheartening,” Bladt said. “They basically beat us with a three-man rush, and we threw into double coverage and they picked it off. Hulett got in our head a little bit.”
Hulett said the pressure improved over the course of the game.
“They had a good tackle, and you really had to use your hands and get after it,” Hulett said. “We put some pressure on the quarterback and I think that caused them some problems. We kept working. We were the more physical team tonight.”
It was only Creston/O-M’s fourth victory ever in the 44-game history of the series (see related chart). The two back-to-back wins in 2011 and 2012 are also the most lopsided by far, by a combined score of 76-34.
“Within our district there are very few teams that beat Harlan consistently,” Morrison said. “They are a great program. Our kids were focused and came out in the second half and executed. I couldn’t be more proud of the effort. It’s a huge win for the community, and it’s a huge district win.”
Creston/O-M travels this week to Glenwood, a 35-15 winner over Sergeant Bluff-Luton in non-district play Friday. After that is a non-district trip to Winterset, followed by the district finale at home against Lewis Central. Harlan has three tough district tests left against Lewis Central, Atlantic and ADM.
“It’s always good to win this game,” Phipps said. “But we are making bigger goals than just beating Harlan. It’s a stepping stone.”