But once the unbeaten Panthers solved the passing attack of the host Eagles — and took advantage of a few of Clay's miscues — Whitmer was able to roll to a 37-6 Three Rivers Athletic Conference football victory.
"It was ugly early," Whitmer coach Jerry Bell said. "We had to overcome some penalties and misplays. Our kids were playing on their heels a little bit at the beginning.
"We finally came out after halftime and started playing on our toes and playing downhill. We've got a little bit of work to go yet. We have to make sure to come out of the gate a little better than that."
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In the end, Clay (3-3, 1-2 TRAC) had no answer for Panther senior quarterback Nick Holley, who rushed 17 times for 139 yards and one touchdown, was 7-of-13 passing for 69 yards and two scores, and set up a another score with a 78-yard interception return.
"I feel like I just did my job," Holley said. "My coaches put me in a position to succeed.
"When we came out we were kind of down and on our heels. Coach [Bell] told us at halftime to come out on our toes and be ready to fight."
Holley's efforts were enough to move the seventh-ranked Panthers to 6-0 overall (3-0 TRAC), and set up a crucial conference matchup next Friday at home against preseason TRAC favorite Findlay.
Whitmer's vaunted defense bent but did not break against the Eagles and junior quarterback Josh Pennington, who was 17-of-34 passing for 214 yards and Clay's lone touchdown.
"We had to get a better pass rush on him," Bell said of Pennington's early passing success. "We adjusted our coverages a little bit, and our guys started making some plays.
"We overcame some adversity, and our kids showed a lot of heart."
Whitmer grabbed an early 3-0 lead by capitalizing on the only turnover of the first half. Eagles return man Jay Smith lost a fumble on the opening kickoff, and the Panthers' Jack Linch recovered at the Clay 27.
The Eagle defense held, however, and Whitmer settled for Michael Baldwin's 21-yard field goal just 1:42 into the game.
Clay responded on its next chance with the football, marching 80 yards on 10 plays. Pennington, who completed all three of his passes on the drive, hit Kyle Row over the middle, and Row (seven catches, 93 yards) did the rest on a 27-yard touchdown connection with 6:09 left in the first quarter.
When Mounib Jomaa's subsequent point-after kick attempt bounded off the right upright, the score remained 6-3.
The Panthers struck for two TDs in the second quarter to take a 17-6 lead to halftime.
Running back Tre Sterritt capped a monster 15-play, 87-yard march with a one-yard scoring run, and Whitmer went up 10-6. Holley's 30-yard TD run around left end with 6:47 left in the half pushed Whitmer's lead to 11 points.
Pennington hit running back Devin Dominique on a 79-yard pass to the Whitmer 7, but Clay failed to execute from there. Whitmer blocked Bryce Castilleja's 32-yard field goal try, and Panther Nate Holley returned the ball 70 yards down the right sideline for an apparent TD.
The Panthers were penalized for an illegal block on the runback, however, and started at the Clay 30. From there, Nate's twin brother Nick finished the job.
"We moved the ball and Josh [Pennington] played pretty well," Clay coach Mike Donnelly said. "And, we got some good stops early. But the biggest thing was mistakes.
"Right now, the biggest thing between us competing in the top half of this league and being where we are, is mistakes. We're seeing progress, and that's the good thing. We're getting closer."
The Panthers added a TD in the third quarter on Nick Holley's 19-yard pass to Michael Dzikowski, and two more in the fourth on a two-yard plunge from Me'Gail Frisch, and Holley's five-yard scoring pass to Chris Boykin.
Whitmer topped Clay 282-250 in total offense and won the turnover battle 3-0.
"Coach always says, if you get a turnover, you've got to capitalize," Holley said. "We pretty much hit the big home run when we needed it, and we did what we were supposed to do."
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.