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Cougars outrun Panthers for Big Cat win

Cougars outrun Panthers for Big Cat win
Cougars outrun Panthers for Big Cat win
Members of the North Harrison football team celebrate after winning the Big Cat Classic for the seventh consecutive year. With their 28-7 win over rival Corydon Central, the Cougars have now won their last eight straight meetings (including sectional play) against the Panthers. Photo by Brandon Miniard
Brandon Miniard, Sports Writer, [email protected]

When used as an adjective, the term “classic” is defined as “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.” That definition could be used to describe the annual Big Cat Classic during the past two years. In the previous two editions of the battle for Harrison County’s gridiron bragging rights, the Corydon Central and North Harrison football teams needed more than 48 minutes to decide who would walk away victorious.

A victory was just what was needed Friday night in Ramsey as both the Cougars and Panthers readied for the 44th edition of the rivalry. The host Cougars had a slow start during the season’s first two weeks, getting shut out, 38-0, by rival Salem in their home opener followed by a near come-back effort against Scottsburg last week. The Panthers had similar issues to begin the season, getting demolished by rival Brownstown Central 43-6 and Paoli 42-7 in their first pair of contests.

Both standing at 0-2 to begin Week 3, it’s the first time the two rivals met with losing records since 2009 when they went into Week 2 with identical 0-1 records. It’s also the first time both squads came into the contest winless since 1996, when the Cougars defeated the host Panthers 20-8 in Week 7 to finally notch their only regular-season victory that year.

The host Cougars answered the call for improvement first, utilizing their ground game to run the Panthers off Cougar Field to win the rivalry once again, this time by a 28-7 margin.

“It’s been pretty miserable around here for two weeks, felt like two months,” Cougars’ head coach Mark Williamson said. “It’s been miserable for the players, coaches, parents; they deserved some joy.”

The Cougars began their attack on the contest’s first possession after returning the opening kick to half field. The subsequent drive needed 10 plays to complete, which came courtesy of senior cornerback Colten Hickman’s 16-yard rush into the end zone.

After falling behind early, junior running back Tyler Stark recovered the kick at the Panthers’ 39-yard line to start a drive toward the Cougars’ end zone. While a pair of false starts made matters more difficult, the Panthers marched 51 yards down the field in just three plays. The Panthers saw a tied ballgame within their grasp as senior quarterback Nolan Adams fired a long pass to senior receiver Owen Shireman, only for the latter to watch Hickman snatch the ball out of the air for an interception.

The pick inspired the Cougars as they once again marched down the field, ending with junior running back Sawyer Wetzel trekking 10 yards for the Cougars’ second consecutive score. The 14-0 advantage swelled to 21-0 when Cougars’ senior quarterback Colt Beach took matters into his own hands, delivering a four-yard rushing touchdown.

Despite the familiar hole they were stuck in, the Panthers had some fight in them to begin the second half. Once positioned just short of the Cougars’ 30-yard line, Adams redeemed himself for his earlier passing miscue by rushing past Cougars’ defenders before dashing into the end zone.

“I noticed after running the ball to the outside a few times that the middle was wide open,” Adams said. “(North Harrison) was basically giving that to me, so I took it up the middle.”

Not comfortable with a 21-7 edge, Beach once again forced the issue, leading a drive that consumed most of the third quarter before taking the two-yard journey to the Panthers’ end zone, padding the Cougars’ lead to a more comfortable 28-7.

From that point onward, the Cougars’ defense held the Panthers’ offense at bay until the contest’s final seconds, allowing them to hoist the Big Cat Classic trophy for the seventh consecutive season.

Of the Cougars’ 359 total offensive yards, 341 of them came on the running game, mostly courtesy of two Cougars’ stars. Sophomore receiver Owen Whittaker led the way with 158 yards on 27 carries, followed closely by Wetzel’s 131 yards on 18 carries. Beach made modest contributions in the air, going 1 for 3 with 18 passing yards. His impact came more so on the ground, notching a pair of rushing touchdowns alongside 28 yards on five carries.

“(Corydon Central) had a decent defense; they were maybe coming a little late to the ball,” Beach said. “All we did was bring everybody together, fighting as one, which was a change from the first two weeks where we were playing almost individually.”

The Panthers were left in the dust in the running game, notching only 151 yards on the ground. Adams led the rushing attack with 78 yards on 17 carries, including his rushing touchdown to go along with his 62 yards on 7-of-10 passing. Junior running backs Anthony Martin and Hunter Schmitt followed Adams’ lead with a combined 73 yards on eight carries. All 43 of Martin’s yards came on a single rush before being removed with an apparent left shoulder injury, spending the rest of the contest on the sideline in a sling.

Penalties did the Panthers no favors either in the loss, losing 64 total yards as opposed to the Cougars’ 40.

“We wanted to win the football game and get that trophy back,” Panthers’ head coach Aaron Humphrey said. “We struggled at times to slow (North Harrison) down, but I felt like in the second half we did a much better job of slowing them down.”

With the victory, the Cougars avoided their first 0-3 start since 2014. The Panthers were not as fortunate, starting 0-3 for the fourth time in the last six seasons. Counting sectional play, the Cougars have won their last eight meetings. The last time the Panthers took down the Cougars was on Aug. 29, 2014, when the Panthers defeated the host Cougars 22-13.

“We just need to work on coming out stronger like we did that second half,” Adams said.

While relieved to finally crack into the win column, Williamson also acknowledged that this single win will not magically turn their season around. Whether this win can be the start of a new trend remains to be seen and may depend on their performance on Friday, when the Cougars (1-2, 1-2 MSC) end their two-week homestand by welcoming rival Charlestown (1-2, 0-2 MSC).

“Just because we won a game doesn’t mean we’re there because we’re not,” Williamson said. “(Charlestown’s) going to have speed, and speed hurts us, but we’re going to get better. We have a long way to go, but we made progress this week.”

The season won’t get any easier for the Panthers (0-3, 0-2 MSC) as they prepare for Friday when they host rival Scottsburg (3-0, 1-0 MSC). After defeating Connersville 40-12 on Friday, the Warriors are off to their best start since restarting the program in 2015. The Panthers will look to avoid beginning the season 0-4 for the first time since 2017.

“We just have to continue to get better with the basic fundamentals of blocking and tackling,” Humphrey said. “I thought we played our best half of football yet in the second half, and I think that’s a good stepping stone for us to build on going into next week against Scottsburg.”

Kickoff for both the Cougars vs. Charlestown and the Panthers vs. Scottsburg is slated for Friday at 7 p.m.

Corydon Central                0     0     7     0 –   7

North Harrison                 14     7     7     0 – 28

North Harrison – Hickman 16 run (McIntire Kick); North Harrison – Wetzel 10 run (McIntire Kick); North Harrison – Beach 4 run (McIntire Kick); Corydon Central – Adams 32 run (Gerlach Kick); North Harrison – Beach 2 run (McIntire Kick).