For three quarters Friday night, it appeared the Powell High School football team, led by a stifling and opportunistic defense, had done just enough to earn a Homecoming victory against No. 4 Star Valley.
But squandered opportunities prevented the Panthers (1-4, 0-2) from building on a 7-6 lead in the second half, including a pair of first and goal situations that resulted in zero points. That allowed the Braves (4-1, 2-0) to battle back for a late score and escape a raucous Homecoming crowd at Panther Stadium with a 14-7 conference win.
“Those little things, those little execution things we’re really going to be focusing on this week,” said Panthers head coach Aaron Papich. “I think we’re starting to solidify ourselves with what we do, but now it’s the things like special teams, staying onsides that we need to really focus on this final stretch.”
The game was a defensive battle from the start, with the Panthers and Braves trading possessions for much of the first half. With 22 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Powell defensive back Kaelan Groves intercepted a Brant Nelson pass and returned it to the Star Valley 47, giving the Panthers excellent field position; it was Groves’ fourth pick on the season.
Powell gave it right back just a few plays later, however, as quarterback Ethan Asher’s pass into double coverage was picked by the Braves’ Chase Merrell.
The Panthers’ defense held Star Valley to a three-and-out, but a roughing the punter penalty gave the Braves a first down on the Powell 22. The Panthers’ defense came up big yet again, as blitzing linebacker Carson Olsen disrupted a handoff, resulting in a fumble recovery by defensive lineman Duy Hoang and ending the scoring threat.
“Carson Olsen had a huge tackle for loss in the backfield to cause that turnover that Duy [Hoang] recovered,” Papich said. “That was a big time blitz that [defensive coordinator Mike] Heny put him on, and he put him in a position to be successful. He [Olsen] definitely executed, he blew up that play, and it was a big-time momentum play for us. I was really proud of his effort.”
Explained Olsen, “The guys up front were doing their job and created a hole for me to blitz through and make a play.”
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” he said.
After a three-and-out by the Panthers, Star Valley once again found itself in scoring position. Facing a third and forever following a sack by Powell’s Dalton Woodward, Star Valley’s Nelson converted on an improbable 40-yard completion to Merrell for a first down on the Panther 18. The Braves finally broke the stalemate on a 3-yard touchdown run by RJ Cazier with just over a minute left in the half. Powell blocked the extra point, and Star Valley led 6-0 at the break.
“We weren’t really looking at the scoreboard all that much at that point,” Papich said of the first half. “But we were feeling extremely confident.”
The Panthers stayed with the run to open the second half, putting together their longest drive of the game. Behind the one-two punch of Brody Karhu and Kadden Abraham, Powell drove deep into Star Valley territory.
“We thought from the outset we could run between the tackles,” Papich said. “Our linemen have been doing a really good job, along with our backs. We felt like we could really get it done with our rushing attack, that was totally by design.”
But on fourth and goal from the one, Abraham was shut down on a sweep, turning the ball over on downs. Penalties were an issue beginning with that drive, most notably false starts by the offensive line.
“We really need to slow things down, think about where we are in a given situation — how much time is on the clock, what’s the down and distance,” Papich said. “We need to bring better situational awareness to each play.”
The Panthers’ defense continued to frustrate the Braves, and after forcing a punt out of Star Valley’s end zone, Powell was back in business with good field position and just minutes left in the third quarter.
“With our defense, we just focus on the next play,” Olsen said. “We’re always asking how we can do better on the next play.”
Karhu and Abraham again took the Panthers down to the 1-yard line, setting up Asher for a quarterback keeper to tie the game. Hawkin Sweeney converted the extra point, giving Powell its first lead of the game 7-6.
The two teams traded possessions to begin the fourth quarter, and with Star Valley having the ball at their own 23, Asher helped his own cause, picking off Nelson and returning it to the 14. The Panthers offensive woes in the red zone continued, however, and with a fourth down on the 9-yard line, a high snap on a field goal attempt led to a turnover on downs.
“When it comes to just driving down the field, I’m very confident with our guys and their execution,” Papich said. “They’re hard workers, their effort and attitude is great. But now when there’s just a few yards to go, what exactly is the defense giving us, what do we need to do, how much time is on the clock? We need to feel confident when we go all that way we get seven points out of it.”
The botched field goal was the momentum swing the Braves were hoping for. With seven minutes left in the game, Star Valley drove 81 yards for the go-ahead score; a missed two-point conversion gave the Braves a 12-7 lead.
On the Panthers’ next possession, with the game winding down, an Asher pass was tipped at the line and intercepted by Star Valley’s Logan Hoopes. Powell’s defense once again showed its resilience, causing a fumble with just under two minutes to play, recovered by Asher. But any thoughts of a last-second comeback were quickly dashed, nullified by an offensive holding penalty in the end zone. That resulted in a safety against the Panthers and a 14-7 win for the Braves.
Papich said he was hoping for a different outcome, but he was encouraged by the effort the team continued to put forth, especially in the game’s final minutes.
“Obviously, you want to win,” Papich said. “But we feel like we’re starting to get the pieces to come together.”
The Panthers finished with 248 yards of total offense, 184 of that on the ground. Abraham led with 71 yards on 12 carries, followed by Karhu with 55 yards on 11 carries. Groves added 25 yards and Kanyon Gann finished with 17.
Coming into the game as the state’s third-ranked quarterback in 3A, Asher was held in check by the Star Valley defense. The junior finished with five completions on nine attempts for just 29 yards, throwing three interceptions. Groves was the team’s leading receiver with two catches for 12 yards.
Defensively, the Panthers held Star Valley — a team that racked up over 600 yards offensively last week in a win over Green River — to 275 yards of total offense.
“Coach Heny does a really good job working with our defense. I think it was just a great team effort,” Papich said. “Our linemen, linebackers and secondary all did a really good job communicating with each other. We had a really physical week of practice to prepare for Star Valley, and I think the defense responded really well.”
Linebackers Karhu and Olsen finished with 16 defensive points, followed by Asher and Groves with 15 each.
Sophomore defensive back Kobe Ostermiller, tasked for most of the game with covering Star Valley’s 6’ 5” receiver Merrell, finished with 10 points.
“Kobe [Ostermiller] had a huge, huge challenge,” Papich said. “We knew that guy [Merrell] was going to make some plays, but we wanted to limit him to the number of plays he made. They matched him up one-on-one against Kobe, and I thought he responded really great to the challenge, he had a good game.”
The Panthers will look to rebound Friday, as they welcome the fifth-ranked Cody Broncs (4-1, 1-1) to Panther Stadium. Powell’s cross-county rival and defending state 3A champs had their hands full with Evanston last week in a 46-26 win that was closer than the final score would indicate.
“We’ve just got to trust in what we do,” Papich said. “We’re going to show up this week, practice really hard because we know we have a really tough team to play on Friday. Coach [Matt] McFadden is a great coach, I know he’ll have his guys prepared and ready to go.”
Olsen said he expects the team to have a good week of practice, and the team will be ready to go come Friday night.
“Whatever they might have for us, what they might be expecting, we’ll look at the film and get a head start,” he said.
“I wholeheartedly believe in these kids,” Papich added. “I couldn’t believe the effort we put up against Star Valley. I can feel that we are improving, and we’re eventually going to turn the page. I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids to coach.”