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FINDLAY — Whitmer began slowly in its Three Rivers Athletic Conference football showdown against fellow unbeaten Findlay Friday night at Donnell Stadium, starting in reverse and then being stuck in neutral for much of the first quarter.
By game's end, however, the fourth-ranked Panthers had found overdrive in racing to a 49-23 victory before a crowd of 7,000 to spoil homecoming for 11th-ranked Findlay.
Whitmer (7-0, 4-0) overcame three first-quarter fumbles with a three-pronged attack of 100-yard rushers, and three interceptions from linebacker Nate Holley.
PHOTO GALLERY: Whitmer defeats Findlay Oct. 7, 2011.
Holley's third pick was the exclamation point, returned 21 yards for the Panthers' final touchdown, just eight seconds after teammate LeRoy Alexander had bolted 69 yards for a TD with 2:26 remaining.
"The interceptions came from our defensive line getting to the quarterback," Holley said. "A couple of them were tipped, and I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time. Our coaches always talk to us about handling adversity and bouncing back from it, and that's what we did."
Alexander (13 carries, 169 yards), fellow running back Jody Webb (17 carries, 131) and quarterback Tyler Smith (eight carries, 102 yards) combined for 402 rushing yards and five TDs of the ground. Smith was also 8-of-17 passing for 80 yards and a score, and the Panthers outgained the Trojans 483-376 in total offense.
Findlay (6-1, 3-1) got a 16-of-26 passing effort for 241 yards from quarterback Paul Cosiano, part of the Trojans' 308 aerial yards.
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In a stunning start, Whitmer found itself down 9-0 just 3:52 into the game.
A short opening kickoff plus a face-masking penalty on Whitmer set up a 23-yard field goal by Findlay's Brandon Shanahan. After Webb lost a fumble, the Trojans capitalized.
Austin Niswander, threw a backward pass to receiver Dylan Blunk, who fired to a wide-open Jimmy Orwick downfield on a 52-yard TD pass.
"It couldn't have gone much worse early," Whitmer coach Joe Palka said. "On the road, hostile environment, we're turning the ball over and they hit a pass-pass for a touchdown.
"But I was really pleased with our kids' resiliency, and the fact that we didn't let that [bad start] cave us in. We seemed to get stronger as the game went on."
The Panthers lost two more fumbles – both by Smith – but gained their composure and took the lead by halftime.
With 30.6 seconds left in the first quarter, Smith hit Alonzo Lucas on a 28-yard TD pass, and a subsequent 35-yard punt return by Lucas set up Webb's 23-yard TD run 2:44 before the break.
After halftime, Whitmer needed just four plays to cover 72 yards and extend its lead to 21-9. Smith ran through the middle 46 yards for a TD 1:44 into the third quarter.
"At the beginning of the game I was mad at myself," Smith said. "I made a lot of mistakes. But my team picked me up, and we started picking it up as a whole, and we did what we had to do. It was just a matter of time."
Findlay answered, moving 80 yards on seven plays and scoring on Cosiano's 24-yard pass to Blunk to get within 21-16 at 7:42 of the third quarter.
Findlay later had the ball with a chance to take a lead late in the third quarter, but was forced to punt. That was the end of the upset bid by the Trojans, as Whitmer added 28 points in the game's final 13:09.
"We had the ball in the third quarter with a chance to go down and take the lead," Findlay coach Mark Ritzler said. "The offense, defense and special teams fought to give us a chance. It was 21-16 and we just couldn't come up with a big play to get us over the hump."
Smith raced around left end 47 yards for a TD with 1:09 left in the third quarter, and Webb added a 14-yard TD run with 9:10 left in the fourth for a 35-16 Panther lead.
"We got a little bit of stuff going in the third quarter, got a little momentum and made a couple big plays," Ritzler said. "But Whitmer's just so powerful up front with their blitzes and their defensive line."
After Alexander and Holley capped the scoring for Whitmer, Findlay added a score with 2.9 seconds to play on a five-yard pass from Cosiano to Joseph Davidson.
"In the second half I think we wore them down a little bit," Palka said. "You always go back to your base offense and your base defense when things aren't going well, and that's what we did tonight."
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6461 or on Twitter @JungaBlade