So the Panthers weren’t looking at Friday’s West Shore Conference game as just a chance to get a road win and to help themselves to some Division I computer points. For coach Mike Polevacik and his team, it was Week 1 of their playoffs, a true do-or-die game.
With Justin Rankin leading the way, the Panthers’ playoff dreams were kept alive for another week as they defeated Lakewood 42-21 to improve to 4-3 and 2-1 in the WSC. The Panthers entered the night in 15th place is Division V, Region 16.
Rankin rushed for 236 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jeremy Holley and intercepted a pass in the end zone. He did most of his damage in the first half, as his three scores helped the Panthers build a 28-14 halftime lead.
“Last year we were 6-4 and were playing so we could get into the playoffs. This year I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to win these final games and get into the playoffs and make history,” Rankin said.
In the first half Rankin had six runs of more than 10 yards, including bursts of 28 and 78 that finished in the end zone. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior said he enjoyed running on the artificial surface at First Federal Lakewood Stadium.
“This is great. We prepare on grass every day and when you get out here and run on turf it’s like nothing, it’s easy,” said Rankin, who has 921 rushing yards this season. “Before the game Coach talked to me about the hitting the hole hard because sometimes I like to dance around a lot. The offensive line gave me nice holes and I went out and hit them hard. Once I get into the secondary I know there are not too many people who can catch me.”
Lakewood (1-6, 0-3) tried to match the Panthers score for score, converting on three fourth downs to set up scoring drives. When Peyton Graham connected with Anthony Ferrone on a 20-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter the Rangers were within 28-21. It was the last time they found the end zone.
“As a team we pressured the ball. When the offense puts up a lot of points it’s just up to the defense to keep the momentum going,” said senior linebacker Luke Michalski, who had two sacks to increase his season total to five. “We really didn’t scheme to stop a running quarterback, but we just adjusted on the fly when we saw he was having success running the ball.”
Lucas Ball put an exclamation point on the win with a 75-yard interception return with less than two minutes to play.
Polevacik said his team knew how important a win against a Division I school was to its playoff chances.
“There were a lot of first-level points on the line tonight,” he said. “I told the boys we were in a must-win situation and they responded.
“This is a brutal, physical conference so anytime you can get a win, especially on the road, it’s a big win.”
BAG OF TRICKS: Lakewood went deep into its playbook to try to find a way to outscore the Panthers. On fourth-and-7 in the second quarter, punter Dan Mathews threw a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Aaron Morit to keep the drive alive.
After Morit scored with 1:34 left in the half, kicker Jameson Foran executed an onside kick. He dribbled it 10 yards, then fell on the ball to give the Rangers another possession.