SANDUSKY, Ohio — The unbeaten Whitmer football juggernaut kept right on rolling Saturday night as the second-ranked Panthers jumped to a 23-point halftime lead and cruised to an impressive 37-0 victory over unranked Wadsworth in a Division I regional final played at Cedar Point Stadium.
“Our kids have their eye on a pretty big prize, and I almost think they’re afraid of failure,” sixth-year Whitmer coach Joe Palka said. “So, they continue to work hard. We had a great defensive plan, and we did what we needed to do. Our team just keeps getting better, and it’s a tribute to our kids.”
Panthers senior running back Jody Webb carried 22 times for 155 yards and scored two touchdowns to ignite Whitmer (13-0), and the defense did the rest in shutting down the Grizzlies’ highly touted tailback Jack Snowball.
PHOTO GALLERY: Prep Football: Whitmer vs. Wadsworth
Snowball, who entered with 2,504 rushing yards (209 per game) and 32 TDs for Wadsworth (11-2), was held to a season-low 90 yards on 30 carries.
“We tackled him low, and we gang-tackled,” Palka said. “That’s what we felt we had to do with him. We couldn’t give up any big plays. Our kids run so well to the football that it makes a big difference. One guy is not going to beat us.”
“They’re pretty good,” Snowball said of Whitmer’s defense.
“They run to the ball on defense, and on offense they can pass it or throw it. They’re a good team.”
Whitmer, which advanced to its second straight D-I state semifinal and fourth in school history, will face 10-time state champion Cleveland St. Ignatius (11-2) in a semifinal next Saturday night at a site to be determined. St. Ignatius beat Mentor 23-17 in the Region 1 final Saturday night.
The Panthers, who lost 23-13 to eventual D-I state champion Lakewood St. Edward in last year’s state semis, have outscored their three playoff foes 94-6 thus far.
Whitmer opened the game’s scoring on its second possession, driving 75 yards on 11 plays. Webb capped things on a one-yard run for a 7-0 lead with 3:04 left in the first quarter.
The next Panther scoring drive needed just one play after the Whitmer defense stopped Snowball for a two-yard gain on a fourth-and-3 run from the Panthers’ 23.
Webb found a seam through the middle of the Wadsworth defense, broke free, and outran the Grizzlies’ secondary on a 79-yard TD burst.
“We had to come out and play hard from start to finish and play our game,” Webb said. “That’s how we got it done. There is no losing now. You lose, and you’re done.”
A high snap on the point-after try left the score at 13-0 with 9:26 left in the first half.
On its next opportunity, Whitmer drove from its 28 to the Wadsworth 15 before settling for Michael Baldwin’s 32-yard field goal 3:46 before halftime.
Whitmer then capitalized on the only turnover of the first half, with Mark Meyers intercepting a Matt Alic pass at the Panther 46 and returning it 54 yards down the right sideline for a TD and a 23-0 lead with 1:03 left before the break.
“I was reading my keys, and I saw Snowball coming out of the backfield,” Meyers said. “I jumped on it. Once I caught the ball, I was thinking of nothing but end zone.”
The Panthers outgained the Grizzlies 201-102 in total offense in the first half and 411-195 in the game.
“That was our main focus,” All-Ohio Whitmer defensive end Chris Wormley said of stopping Wadsworth’s star. “Snowball is their entire offense. He had over 2,500 yards rushing coming into the game, and we held him to less than 100. Everyone contributed. We’re ready for next Saturday. We can’t wait to play.”
Whitmer sealed things after halftime with a pair of third-quarter TD passes by junior quarterback Tyler Palka, who was an efficient 10-of-14 passing for 140 yards with no interceptions.
His first scoring strike capped an eight-play, 73-yard march. Palka rolled left on a bootleg and could have run the ball in, but he opted to loft a five-yard TD pass to tight end Nick Longenbarger with 5:45 left in the third.
Palka’s second TD pass came on the third play of Whitmer’s next possession. He found Alonzo Lucas over the middle 20 yards downfield, and Lucas (five catches, 81 yards), who made a superb leaping catch in stride, kept his balance and continued to the end zone on the 58-yard TD play with 2:12 left in the third.
“Tyler Palka looked off the safety to the left, and that left me wide open,” Lucas. “After that, all I was thinking was, ‘Don’t get caught.’ “
“We felt we had to get some balance in the run-pass game, we had to be able to throw when we had the wind, and we had to be able to distribute the ball to different guys,” coach Palka said. “We thought we did that.
“Great players seem to rise to the big occasions, and tonight was another example of that. Hopefully we’ve got another one in us next week.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.