BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Every fall, the Western Panthers and Northwestern Tigers meet on the gridiron in a much anticipated rivalry football game. Last Friday, under less-than-ideal conditions, the squads battled for pride as both were already out of the Hoosier Conference title race. And the tone was set early by the Black Attack defense.
Entering the game as the underdog after losing starting quarterback Tyler Knepley to a broken collarbone, the Panthers defense bent but did not break on the opening possession. The Tigers, with help from running back Evan Cardwell, drove easily down to the one yard line. But just as they looked to score, Northwestern coughed up the ball and Western recovered – one of seven Tigers fumbles on the night.
“Our defense stepped up huge,” said Western head coach Ron Jankovich. “I have said all along that our defense is our lifeblood; our defense sets up our offense. And it did tonight. We preach it every single day and coach Derek Tuggle says it every day.”
Neither team scored in the first stanza and the game was tied at eight at the half. Western struck first when backup quarterback Jacob Douglass had a 53-yard run, scored from one-yard out and added a two-point conversion on the windy evening. Northwestern evened the score when quarterback Trey Richmond found Austin Miller for a 19-yard scoring strike – Richmond then ran in the two-point conversion.
“We’ve said all year our special teams will make or break us,” said Jankovich. “Today, they made us with those two-point conversions. If we don’t get those we are on the other side of things. Our guys set the tempo.”
Northwestern looked to be in business again early in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers fumbled the ball in the red zone and Josue Hicks returned the ball 58 yards. With 10:05 left in the game, Douglass found pay dirt for a second time – this time on a 16-yard run to the end zone. He added his second two-point conversion run to put the Panthers up 16-8. Douglass accounted for all 16 Western points and had 87 yards rushing.
“Last week, Knep goes down for the season and Jacob comes in and runs for two scores,” said Jankovich. “Our guys have rallied behind him. He came out and fought his butt off and executed the game plan.”
Again, Northwestern countered with a long drive, setting up a first and goal from the five-yard line. But as the theme of the night went, they fumbled and Western’s Andrew Ault fell on the ball. Three lost fumbles and six missed opportunities in the red zone doomed the Tigers in a night when Richmond was 21 for 28 for 258 yards. In fact, the Tigers outgained the Panthers 407-224 on the night.
But despite the miscues, the Tigers were not done. The squad mounted a drive, culminating with a Richmond to Noah Dowden five-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 16-14 with 4:20 left. On the two-point conversion attempt, Richmond kept the ball and was stopped short of the goal line.
Freshman Kitchel Gifford (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) was sensational for Western, running for 122 yards on 29 carries. He saw extended playing time as Brooklyn Watters was battling a minor injury.
Cardwell added 94 yards rushing for Northwestern while Miller had six catches for 83 yards. Noah Dowden also had nine catches for 118 yards.
Western (2-5, 1-1 in the Hoosier Conference East Division) travels to Hamilton Heights (3-2, 2-0 in HC East) Friday night. Northwestern (3-4, 1-1 in HC East) hits the road for a matchup against Hoosier Heartland Conference member Carroll (4-3).