Can the Panthers make it three in a row over Harlan?
That question would have seemed absurd for the the decades the Cyclones dominated the football series with Creston/Orient-Macksburg.
But, now, at least the possibility is reality when the Panthers visit Harlan’s homecoming Friday night at Merrill Field.
Creston/O-M owns two successive wins over Harlan, by a combined margin of 76-34. Last year’s 34-14 Panther homecoming triumph was only the fourth victory in the series’ 44-game history.
In that contest last year at Panther Field, Creston/O-M took an early 13-0 lead on two early Harlan turnovers, including an 87-yard interception return by Brandon Phipps, who now succeeds Luke Neitzel at quarterback.
Harlan righted itself and took a 14-13 lead into halftime, but the Panthers sealed up the home victory on the strength of a 14-0 fourth quarter. Bryce McIlravy gained 111 of his 129 rushing yards in the second half as the Panthers controlled the ball, and the clock. Neitzel finished with 130 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Defensive end Keaton Hulett had three tackles for losses as the Panthers put good presssure on quarterback Adam Juhl, who went 20-of-37 for 218 yards with one touchdown and three costly interceptions.
Juhl and 6-foot-7 tight end Trey Lansman, the team’s leading receiver, return this year in a similar scenario. Harlan is unbeaten in district play at 2-0 and 4-1 overall, while the Panthers are looking to get back into contention with one district loss, also 4-1 overall.
“We’re in the same boat,” Panther coach Brian Morrison said. “If we can beat Harlan, then only Lewis Central can control its own destiny, and we haven’t played them yet.”
Last year Neitzel and McIlravy got injured before the Lewis Central game, which ended up a 16-7 loss as the Panthers tumbled to the fourth and final playoff position in District 1 after contending for the championship all season.
Morrison knows the seventh-ranked Cyclones are a big challenge in continuing a strong district run in 2013.
“Overall they are a good football team,” Morrison said. “They return a lot in their passing game. (Nate Gettys) is a strong runner and it looks like they’re trying to be more balanced this year. They’re decent up front.”
Morrison said the keys to victory are not complicated. Don’t let Juhl and company have a lot of opportunities, and keep him uncomfortable.
“Offensively, we have to run the football and control the clock,” Morrison said. “Defensively, we can’t give up big plays and we have to keep the ball in front of us. We know they like to use their middle screens, reverses and draws to hit people with big plays. Our kids are aware of what they do.”
One tool not at Morrison’s disposal in neutralizing the 6-7 Lansman as a receiving threat is 6-2 safety Alex Nielsen. He suffered an ankle sprain last week and won’t resume practice until sometime next week.
“It would be nice to have Nielsen in our package and just keep him on the tight end side,” Morrison said. “But we don’t have that option. We’ll have to do a good job of keeping Lansman on the line of scrimmage with our defensive line.”
Junior Bryce Briley played safety the final three quarters against Perry and draws Friday’s starting assignment. The secondary’s job will be made easier if the work up front approaches last year’s level.
“The teams that played well against Harlan this year, Glenwood and Carroll, their defensive lines got after them and they blitzed a lot,” Morrison said. “We don’t run all of the same schemes, but we’re going to throw some wrinkles at them and hopefully put some pressure on the quarterback. The key will be stopping the running game, and get them in third-and-long situations.”
Juhl has completed 59 of 116 passes (50.9 percent) for 768 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Lansman has 19 receptions for 253 yards and five TDs, including the winning grab in a shared possession situation with Glenwood 5-10 cornerback Scout Crow in the end zone last week with 5:01 left.
“I thought Scout had good position,” said Glenwood coach Cory Faust, a former Nodaway Valley player. “Credit them. The kid (Lansman) is 6-7, he’s a playmaker. I think it looked like a simultaneous catch.”
Harlan outgained the Rams 366-249 in total offense, including 203 on the ground.
Harlan opened district play in a 42-14 road win at Perry, a team Creston/O-M tangled with on even terms last week until scoring late for a 28-21 victory.
The Cyclones racked up a season-high 506 total yards against the Bluejays. Gettys rushed for 199 yards.
Coming off a strong outing last week as Perry concentrated on stopping the run, Creston/O-M quarterback Brandon Phipps is now 55-of-95 passing (57.9 percent) for 679 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions. His quarterback rating of 145.3 is higher than Juhl’s 117.8.
Maxx Walters has 14 receptions for 200 yards and Trevor Frain, now the backup to Phipps with Nielsen injured, has 11 catches out of the backfield and six rushing TDs. Adam Baker has 615 yards rushing in five games on 105 carries.
On the BCMoore computer power rankings — ia.bcmoorerankings.com — Harlan is ranked No. 5 in Class 3A with the ninth-toughest schedule in the class. Creston/O-M is ranked 20th with the 42nd-toughest schedule. Offensive rankings have Creston/O-M eighth and Harlan 19th, and defensive rankings show Harlan ninth and Creston/O-M 19th.
The end result on the Moore power list is Harlan favored by 18.8 points.
Besides Nielsen, there are two other players not available this week. Junior linebacker Alex Tamerius, a starter last season, suffered another ACL injury last week in his first game since recovering from a similar knee mishap in soccer last spring. He’s out for the season.
Sophomore quarterback and defensive lineman Josh Reed was injured in Monday’s JV game and will be sidelined approximately two weeks with concussion symptoms, Morrison said. That leaves running back Trevor Frain and freshmen Brody Frain and Seth Thompson as the only players who have practiced at quarterback besides Phipps.
“Knock on wood, hopefully we’ll be fine there Friday night,” Morrison said.
The weather outlook isn’t nearly as clear and mild as the mid-week practice days have been. That’s fine with the Panther coach, whose team faces the passing game challenge of Harlan’s offense.
“I hope it pours,” Morrison said, with a grin.