Coming off last week’s 14-13 loss at Westmoreland, the Portland Panthers wanted to get back to the run, and run they did.
The Panthers, led by senior Jalen Pero’s 188 yards on 13 carries, put up 336 yards on the ground en route to their 49-14 win over visiting Liberty Creek on Thursday night.
Portland head coach Wes Inman, a bit weary but pumped nonetheless due to a minor illness during the week, praised his team’s improvement over the previous week.
“Well, the biggest thing was keeping our composure, taking care of little things,” Inman said. “We did some things this week to challenge and maintenance a few of the things that gave us issues last week. And we also wanted to set the tone with what we did. We opted not to throw a lot. We wanted to reestablish our run.”
Liberty Creek, the newest member of the Sumner County high school football scene, came in high off its first-ever win against Jackson Central Merry last week. Less than three minutes into the contest, following a mishandled snap and partially blocked punt, Braylen Dowling powered in from nine yards out to give Portland a 7-0 lead.
Pero got his first of three rushing touchdowns a short time later, following his pulling guard into the endzone for a 14-0 lead. Pero heaped the praise on the lines for both sides of the ball. “After last week, we just bounced back as a team,” Pero said. “We just saw the loss as a lesson … Defense played amazing, (offensive line) played amazing. All night, the offense did great.”
The problems continued for the Wolves on the next drive, losing a fumble recovered by Portland defensive back Cullen Box deep in Liberty Creek territory. The Panthers then padded the lead on Freddie Paxton’s diving reception from Portland quarterback Braden Thornton from 18 yards out. Thornton, who finished with 91 yards passing on 8-of-12 attempts, converted the two-point conversion with a pass to Keilen Dalton to push the score to 22-0 late in the first quarter.
The Portland defense limited the Wolves to 23 yards rushing and 73 yards of total offense. Liberty Creek managed only four first downs in the contest.
“I think the biggest thing is Portland is just so big and physical and they have seniors.” Liberty Creek head coach Bill Alexander remarked. “They’re a really good 5A team. They just bullied us some.”
Portland got the ball back early in the second quarter and Pero would take full advantage, taking the handoff off the left side of the Portland line and racing untouched into the endzone 54 yards later.
“Their linebackers were getting taken out by the guards and tackles,” Pero said. “There was really nobody there and the safety was the only one. It’s one-on-one. I’ll take a one-on-one all day.”
Inman added, “We’re tickled when we get a 7-yard gain. So, if we get a 15- or 17-yard run we consider that great and you know, we had a good preseason running the ball, and then we just needed to reestablish that tonight. Our backs are really good at finding the holes, and then we’ve got opportunistic backs, too, when given the opportunity they find a way to make more out of it.”
Liberty Creek’s defense helped set up the Wolves’ first points as defensive back Jake Barbuto read Thornton’s pass in the flat perfectly and took it 66 yards the other direction, setting up a 7-yard scoring run and subsequent 2-point conversion by Brian Rager.
Pero added his third score of the night shortly thereafter, a 7-yard run to put the Panthers up 36-8. Paxton’s 1-yard run pushed Portland’s lead to 42-8 by the end of the first half.
The third quarter saw no team able to gain much ground as the Wolves’ offense could not get much going and Portland would commit numerous penalties that ground down the running clock.
“We had a few problems in the second half,” Inman said. “We’ve got to address those – got a little sloppy.”
Dowling picked up his second of the night early in the fourth on a seven-yard run for Portland’s final points.
Liberty Creek would close out the night on a 14-yard pass from Rager to Brock Taylor with under a minute left, making the final 49-14 in favor of the Panthers.
“I think we needed this after last week,” Pero said. “It’s a great win for the team.”
Despite the result, Alexander remained positive about his team’s performance.
“About 70 percent of our team is freshman and sophomores. This was a good experience for them tonight. The game’s faster. It’s more physical. We challenged them, we didn’t get on them at halftime. We knew there would be nights like this. We talk about looking through the windshield and not the rearview mirror. I felt like we competed better in the second half.”