Fairbanks’ Tyler Beam (8) comes down with a pass reception Friday night against West Liberty-Salem. The Panthers fell short of the Tigers, 27-24.
(Journal-Tribune photo by Tim Miller)
Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant always claimed that he never lost a game.
He did say, however, that the clock ran out on him several times throughout his career.
Fairbanks High School head coach Patrick Cotter could echo those sentiments Friday night after the Panthers’ 27-24 loss to West Liberty-Salem.
The Tigers (7-1) scored all the points they would need during the first half, but had to fight off a stiff second-half challenge by the Panthers.
Time would simply run out on FHS, which slipped to 4-4.
Although West Liberty put 27 points on the board, no fingers of blame could be pointed at the FHS defense.
The Tigers’ first 12 points all came as a result of special teams play.
Take those markers away, and a West Liberty offense that had been averaging 42 points per game, had to scratch and claw for 15 additional points.
“Our defense played a great game,” said Cotter. “Our defensive line played great, our linebackers filled in well and our defensive backs came up to help.”
The game began in a rather unusual fashion as the Tigers notched their first points on a safety.
Fairbanks had to punt after only three plays to start the game.
A bad snap from center sailed over the head of punter Mason Cushman and into the end zone.
Cushman fell on the ball and was downed for the safety.
The Tigers lost the ball on downs during their first series after moving it down to the FHS 28.
The Panthers mounted an eight-play drive that featured quarterback Jacob Nicol distributing the ball to a variety of receivers.
The final play was a 38-yard scoring strike to Beau Sloan.
Megan Olson’s extra point gave Fairbanks a 7-2 lead with 4:13 left in the opening quarter.
It did not take the Tigers long to regain the upper hand that they would not relinquish the rest of the evening.
West Liberty’s Levi Moell fielded the kick and was off to the races right up the middle of the Panthers’ coverage. He didn’t stop running until he had crossed the end line 85 yards later.
Ethan Cole’s extra point returned a 9-7 lead to the visitors.
FHS lost the ball on downs as the first quarter clock wound down to less than three minutes.
The Tigers carried their next series into the second quarter and tallied three additional points on Cole’s 36-yard field goal.
The Panthers (who will host Triad on Friday) moved to near midfield with less than five minutes remaining until halftime.
The series ended, though, when Nicol’s pass was picked off by Garrett Predmore.
Zech Wilcox took a handoff from quarterback Major Stratton and went up the middle. He made it down to the Fairbanks five-yard-line.
Two plays later, Stratton burst into the end zone from two yards out.
Cole’s extra point gave the Tigers a 19-7 advantage.
Nicol’s southpaw throws engineered another drive that advanced down to the West Liberty 21.
The series stalled after two incomplete passes, but Olson drilled a 34-yard field goal that cut FHS’ deficit to 19-10.
West Liberty was not, however, content to sit on that lead.
Stratton connected on a 46-yard pass to Moell that put the ball on the FHS four-yard-line.
Stratton then ran in his second touchdown of the night.
The Tigers lined up for the extra point. Moell, who was the holder, took the snap and faked the placement.
Instead, he raced around the right end for the two-point conversion that sent the Tigers into the turn with a 27-10 lead.
A scoreless third quarter set the stage for the Panthers’ dramatic comeback that fell just a bit short.
Fairbanks’ next scoring drive began with a little more than three minutes to play in the third stanza.
It ended a snap into the fourth quarter when Nicol ran the ball into the end zone from nine yards out.
Olson’s conversion narrowed the gap to 27-17.
After forcing a Tiger punt, the Panthers once again advanced deep into West Liberty territory.
That series, though, ended when Nicol was again picked off by Predmore.
“Jacob was just trying to make a play,” said Cotter.
West Liberty could not capitalize and again was forced to punt.
The Panthers then made things exciting when Nicol rifled a 75-yard scoring strike to Sloan.
Olson once again was spot on with the PAT. With 3:27 left in the game, the Panthers were knocking on the door, down by just three at 27-24.
The Tigers appeared to be stopped when Stratton was thrown for a loss by Sam Rengert with slightly less than two minutes to play.
The Panthers, though, had to burn their final two timeouts as West Liberty faced a third-and-11.
The play that finally broke Fairbanks’ back was Moell’s first-down run to the Panther 48.
The Panthers could not stop the clock and the Tigers went into victory formation to end the game.
“Our offense played a great game as well as our defense,” said Cotter. “We just made two big mistakes.
“We battled in the second half and played a great team game,” he said.
“This game showed the kids we can battle,” said Cotter. “We have to do that and be able to finish games like this.
“When we can do that, we are going to be a dangerous football team,” he said. “Really, I think we’re already a dangerous team.”
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