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Defense carries Panthers past Prowlers

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     Aaron Morris and the Park Rapids football team have found a formula for success.

     For the fourth game in a row, the Panthers relied on a stingy defense to preserve a lead at the half.

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     In the previous three games, the Panthers were outscored 19-0 in the second half, but were victorious after building halftime leads of 21-0 against Roseau, 38-0 against Crookston and 14-6 against Pequot Lakes.

     During Friday night’s game at Thief River Falls, the Panthers relied on that same formula by using a potent rushing attack to build a 21-7 halftime lead and controlling play after the intermission for a 34-7 Heart O’Lakes North Conference victory.

     “To go up there and play the way we did should give our kids plenty of confidence,” said Park Rapids head coach Aaron Morris. “That win moved us up to the No. 7 spot in the (Class AAA) QRF rankings and should put Park Rapids on the map.”

     The game couldn’t have started any worse for the Panthers when a fumble and two interceptions resulted in three turnovers on their first three possessions.

     Fortunately, Park Rapids’ defense stepped up by forcing two punts and taking over on downs following those three mistakes.

     On the first series of the game, the Panthers gained 23 yards on six rushes and used an 11-yard pass from Tyler McCollum to Noah MacPherson to reach the TRF 41. A fumble on the next play ended that threat.

     After forcing the Prowlers to punt, Park Rapids suffered its second turnover on an interception. Thief River Falls again failed to take advantage as an offensive pass interference call, a penalty for a chop block and a sack led to another punt.

     The Prowlers forced another turnover with an interception and reached the Park Rapids 12, but again the Panthers’ defense held as Park Rapids took over at the 15.

     On the next play, MacPherson grabbed a fumble in midair and ran 85 yards for a touchdown. Jarrett Johnson kicked the extra point and the Panthers held a 7-0 lead with 11:36 to play in the first half.

     Park Rapids’ special teams produced a break by recovering an onside kick at the TRF 40. The Panthers capitalized when McCollum found a wide-open MacPherson for a 33-yard TD pass on fourth-and-3. Johnson’s kick pushed the lead to 14-0 at the 10:02 mark.

     Thief River Falls held the Panthers on their next series, but a fumble on a punt gave Park Rapids possession at the Prowlers’ 22. An 18-yard pass play from McCollum to Drew Bade set up a 3-yard TD run by Ben Baumgartner. Johnson’s kick made it 21-0 with 5:42 to play in the first half.

     The Prowlers ended the half with a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Ian Lund followed a 29-yard carry with a 10-yard run, Alex Finseth gained 11 yards on fourth-and-10 and Zeb Nelson rushed for 13 yards on third-and-10 to set up a 7-yard TD run by Lund. That TD with :15 showing closed the gap to 21-7 at the break.

     “I was a little nervous after our three turnovers, but our defense stepped up and they made some mistakes and we capitalized on them,” said Morris. “After they scored before halftime, I thought they might have the momentum. I told the guys to come out fired up and they did and we were able to put the game away.”

     Both teams missed scoring chances at the start of the second half. A 28-yard kickoff return by Lund to the 46 was wasted when the Panthers recovered a fumble on the next play. The Panthers couldn’t take advantage of a 16-yard reception by Baumgartner to the TRF 39 while Thief River Falls wasted a 23-yard run by Lund by losing possession at the Park Rapids 11. Baumgartner followed with a 25-yard run to the 41, but a holding penalty forced the Panthers to punt. Nelson broke free for a 14-yard gain to enter Park Rapids territory, but the Prowlers were forced to punt again.

     The Panthers ended their second-half scoreless streak with a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive. Baumgartner’s 18-yard run and a 53-yard reception by MacPherson set up an 8-yard TD run by Baumgartner. Johnson’s kick gave the Panthers a 28-7 cushion with 51 seconds to play in the third quarter.

     Both teams lost possession on downs before the Panthers ended the scoring with a seven-play, 49-yard drive. Baumgartner rushed six times for 24 yards before Jon Burlingame capped off the drive with a 20-yard TD run. That gave the Panthers a 34-7 lead with 4:44 to play.

     Thief River Falls picked up a couple of first downs, but time ran out as the Panthers were able to spoil the Prowlers’ homecoming game.

     The Panthers rushed for a season-high 247 yards and gained a season-high 378 yards with Baumgartner rushing 21 times for 114 yards and McCollum completing 5 of 15 passes for 131 yards.

     Defensively, the Panthers held TRF to 253 yards in improving to 3-0 against conference teams and 4-1 overall. TRF fell to 2-2 in the conference and 3-2 overall.

     “The offensive line stepped up and played great and we played a huge game defensively against a good team. We played physical and had all 11 guys around the ball,” said Morris. “We made some mistakes early, but we had some breaks go our way. This was a huge win for us.”

     The Panthers will attempt to carry that momentum into Friday night’s home game against Detroit Lakes. The Lakers are 5-0 and ranked No. 6 in the latest state Class AAAA poll. Kickoff at Vern Weekley Field is set for 7 p.m.

     “We’ve come a long way in the last couple of years. To be 4-1 at this point is huge for these guys,” said Morris. “These kids expect to win. They believe that they can beat DL.”

Park Rapids        0     21   7      6…34

TRF                   0      7    0      0...7

SCORING

PR-MacPherson 85 run (J. Johnson kick)

PR-MacPherson 33 pass from McCollum (J. Johnson kick)

PR-Baumgartner 3 run (J. Johnson kick)

TRF-Lund 7 run (Kruse kick)

PR-Baumgartner 8 run (J. Johnson  kick)

PR-Burlingame 20 run (kick failed)

PR OFFENSIVE STATISTICS

RUSHING: Baumgartner 21-114, MacPherson 1-85, Burlingame 8-43, Johnson 1-3, M. Bade 4-2.

PASSING: McCollum 5-15-1 for 131 yards.

RECEIVING: MacPherson 3-97, D. Bade 1-18, Baumgartner 1-16.

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