Coming off the field after last night's game at Whitmer's Memorial Stadium, it was difficult to tell who won judging by the faces of the two head coaches.
St. Francis de Sales coach Dick Cromwell appeared disgusted despite his team's 23-13 victory, while Panther counterpart Dan Fought wore the smile of optimism because of his team's effort against the defending Division II state champions.
Cromwell had reason to be disappointed.
His veteran group failed to run the ball with any consistency, his run defense was decent but gave up an 80-yard touchdown run to Whitmer junior tailback Edwin Hood (24 carries, 130 yards), and his secondary was riddled in the second half by sophomore Panther quarterback J.J. Fought.
The coach's son was 11 of 22 for all 140 of his yards in the final 12:15, including a late six-yard TD strike to Chris Watkins with 22 seconds remaining.
“I told the kids, if they ever believe in themselves and have enough faith, and play the first three quarters like we've played the fourth quarter and overtime now, we'll have a pretty good football team,'' coach Fought said. “But we've got to believe in it quicker and get things going a little quicker.''
Had Fought's receivers not dropped five very catchable balls, the outcome might have been in greater doubt for the 2-0 Knights.
“We couldn't run the ball and they ran it on us,'' Cromwell said. “They hit the one big play, and other than that we played pretty well against the run. Then they started throwing the ball.
“We were backing off a little bit, trying to protect the lead, and they hit a couple. Then they get a fumble, and we weren't ready to go on defense. We'll take the win, but the kids know we didn't play as well as we're capable.''
The game may have proved costly for both sides, as St. Francis defensive back/tailback Brandon Schrader reinjured an already sprained right ankle with 5:43 left in the third quarter. Hood, who led the Great Lakes League in rushing last year with 1,246 yards, went out with the same injury on the first play of the final quarter.
Knight quarterback Kevin Bingle hit Chad Lewandowski on a 26-yard TD pass with 3:09 left in the first quarter. The ball was but plucked from the grasp of Panther safety Chad Sharp.
Bingle fumbled away St. Francis' next scoring chance on the Whitmer 6 late in the first, and Whitmer tied it 7-7 on Hood's TD romp down the right sideline 11:07 before halftime.
St. Francis went up 10-7 on John Murnen's 25-yard field goal late in the half, and Bingle did the rest.
He rolled right for a 28-yard TD with 32 seconds remaining in the third quarter, covering the final 10 yards thanks to the block by tight end Bill James on Whitmer linebacker Steve Jacobsen.
“If our ground game ain't working, we've got to turn to our passing game,'' Bingle said. “That's been our strategy coming in. We've been thinking about throwing the ball more, and we had to do it tonight.''
The Knight QB then plunged in from the 1 with 1:36 left .
“Their passing game and their quarterback did a great job of hitting open receivers, and they made some nice catches for him, too,'' coach Fought said. “That was the big difference tonight.''
Whitmer rushed 29 times for 115 yards, and Fought was 11 of 30 for 140 yards with three interceptions. The Panthers also lost a fumble.
St. Francis ran 44 times for 126 yards, and Bingle was 7 of 17 for 159 yards and no interceptions.