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Panthers upend Pats, lock up spot in playoffs

After Friday's 14-12 win against Westover, coach Michael Pollock's Americus-Sumter Panthers not only clinched a spot in the playoffs, but they're still alive for the Region 1-AAA title if they can beat Cairo in the season finale next Friday. (Photo by Chris Whitaker/Americus Times-Recorder)

After Friday's 14-12 win against Westover, coach Michael Pollock's Americus-Sumter Panthers not only clinched a spot in the playoffs, but they're still alive for the Region 1-AAA title if they can beat Cairo in the season finale next Friday. (Photo by Chris Whitaker/Americus Times-Recorder)

AMERICUS -- They call it "Tebow Heavy."

The plan is to get it to the best player on the team, and for Americus-Sumter, that would be Jonathan Thomas.

Facing a fourth-and-2 from their own 41 and with 9:45 remaining in the game, Thomas took the snap and ran around the right tackle, gaining the first down by half a football.

Thomas caught three passes on the drive, and his second 2-yard run -- a touchdown -- was the difference as the Panthers edged the Westover Patriots, 14-12, on Friday.

"We felt like we might not get another chance the way the game had gone," said Panthers coach Michael Pollock. "They started running the ball a little more to keep the clock running. I looked at Coach (Chris) Wade, and he said we need to go for it. I felt good about it. I felt like JT could at least get a yard and a half, and he did. I just felt like this was the drive we had to get it done."

In a game that was ugly on both sides, the defenses took center stage. Westover (4-5, 2-3 1-AAA) didn't allow a first down for the final 15:25 of the first half and another 10-minute span in the third quarter. Americus-Sumter (6-3, 4-1) did its damage in the backfield, forcing four fumbles while recording sacks.

The Panthers had one first down outside its two scoring drives as the win sets up a shot for the region championship next week when they travel to Cairo.

"We're right back where we were last year -- we're playing Game 10 for the region title," said Pollock. "If we win, we're No. 1, there's no doubt about it. We know we've got to beat Cairo to do it. What better place to go down to the Syrup Bowl and see what we can do."

It was yet another heartbreaker for the Patriots. Their five losses this season have come by a total of 20 points.

Westover dismissed running back/linebacker Shannon Saunders this week, and it didn't get much better in the game.

Dalviness Greene saw limited touches and time on the field after injuring a hamstring early in the game, and quarterback T. J. Wester didn't come back in the second half after taking a big hit to his lip.

T.J. Cromer took Wester's place, completing 5 of 13 passes for 48 yards and an interception, but Westover managed 41 yards in the second half.

"In the second half we lost momentum when we lost our quarterback," said coach Octavia Jones. "He wasn't able to come back in the game - he had a hell of a first half. He came in and made some scores for us. We just couldn't get that momentum back we had offensively in the first half.

"They did a good job on their last scoring drive, taking advantage of what they saw, and just the fight of their kids and their will got them in the end zone to win the football game."

The Patriots opened the game using personal foul and pass interference penalties on the Panthers to eventual move to the Panther 32 before stalling.

Americus-Sumter answered with a 10-play, 85-yard drive that was highlighted by freshman Wesley Fields' 38-yard run. Bryce Benton connected with Christian Laster for a 4-yard touchdown pass, and after an offsides penalty on the extra point, the Panthers went for two with Jarod Lewis scoring on a run to make it 8-0 with 3:25 remaining in the opening quarter.

From there, Westover owned the first half. Kel Miller intercepted a pass, and the Patriots forced four three-and-outs. In doing so, the offense took advantage.

Westover used a 66-yard scoring drive that was capped by Wester's 2-yard run, but the pass failed on the conversion to make it 8-6 with 7:02 remaining in the half.

The Patriots scored on their next possession as well as passes of 24 and 23 yards to Kenneth Towns and Jackie Childs paced the drive. A 5-yard touchdown from Cromer made it 12-8 entering the half.

The Panthers fumbled on the opening possession of the second half, which was recovered by Christopher Green, but the Patriots returned the favor as Lewis intercepted a Cromer pass at the Panther 7.

Americus-Sumter has had its share of good and bad offense this season. Down 12-8 with 1:08 remaining in the third quarter, a different Panther team took the field. A more determined team, it appeared nothing was going to stop them from scoring.

Facing a second-and-23, Benton hit Fields for a 13-yard gain and then Laster for an 8-yard gain to set up the fourth-and-2 at the 41. When Thomas managed to get the first down, Americus-Sumter used 10 more plays, including another fourth-down conversion to score the winning touchdown.

The drive consisted of 17 plays, 78 yards and more than eight minutes off the clock.

Pollock was quick to point out that all three times the Panthers have gone for it on fourth down on their side of the field this season, they have been successful. And all three times, it was Thomas with the ball.

"We really put ourselves in a bind with putting the ball on the ground in some key situations, having some things happen bad on first down," said Pollock. "We have got to do a better job on some things offensively. We'll go back and do it again. We told our offense, we've got to figure out a way to muster out 21 points a game. If we can get 21 points a game, I feel like it would be very difficult for someone to score 21 on our defense."

Westover had one last chance, but the Panther defense stiffened as it has many times in clutch situations this season. Cromer was sacked three times on the series, and a set of screen passes pushed the Patriots to the Panther 45. A deep pass to Kenneth Towns was broken up and one of the sacks set up a 4th-and-22 at the their own 43 when Thomas and Lewis converged to break up another pass intended for Towns.

"We had our opportunities to win it," said Jones. "All we had to do was stop them, and we just couldn't get a stop.

"They were only sending three when they got pressure toward the end of the game. Our guys just couldn't get them blocked. They're fast, and we're big. They took advantage of the mismatch, and it worked out for them. They did a good job."

Westover held a 206-171 edge in total yards, led by Wester, who was 7 of 13 passing for 115 yards in the first half. Benton was 7 of 10 for 75 yards for the Panthers in the second half, finishing 10 of 20 with 96 yards and an interception.

Westover still has a chance to make the postseason, but it must beat Monroe next week and hope Crisp County can beat Worth County to have a shot at the playoffs.

"We've got to go out and win the football game and see what happens," said Jones. "There's still an opportunity for us to sneak in, but we've still got to have some help. We've got to take care of our end of the deal next week."

The Panthers can finish no worse than third.

"We'll take this two-point win and keep chugging along and keep trying to get better in everything," said Pollock. "We're doing the right things in practice. We've just got to transfer it to Friday night."