Chargers’ running game stalls in three-score loss to Panther Creek

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/4/21

PITTSBORO — Lined up in the backfield, Northwood’s Hue Jacobs took the handoff and darted to his left, searching for even the smallest of gaps to slide through. One of the Chargers’ …

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Chargers’ running game stalls in three-score loss to Panther Creek

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Posted

PITTSBORO — Lined up in the backfield, Northwood’s Hue Jacobs took the handoff and darted to his left, searching for even the smallest of gaps to slide through. One of the Chargers’ most powerful runners, he was a perfect fit to run a play mere inches away from the first down marker.

But in a perfect embodiment of Northwood’s offensive struggles, Jacobs had no shot at getting those last few inches as he was taken down in the backfield almost immediately by the Catamounts’ defensive line, turning the ball over on downs.

One play later, Panther Creek’s Amari Odom threw a beautiful pass down the right sideline to senior wide receiver Jonathan Streeter for a 43-yard touchdown.

The Chargers failed to get inches. The Catamounts had no problem getting yards.

Northwood (3-2) stuck to its guns in a lopsided 30-10 loss to the Panther Creek Catamounts (6-0) on Thursday, who created a few big plays to put the Chargers away in the second half, including Odom’s 43-yard bomb that gave Panther Creek a 31-3 lead at the top of the fourth quarter.

The style of play that carried the Chargers to a smash-mouth win over Orange last week is the same style that put them at a late-game disadvantage on Thursday.

Running the ball works — until it doesn’t.

Northwood has the feel of an old-school team from decades ago, one that’s focused on keeping the score low and rushing down their opponents’ throats, wearing them down over the course of a 48-minute game.

Panther Creek is almost the polar opposite, a team centered around throwing the ball deep and catching the defense sleeping. While it has an impressive defense itself — allowing just 36 points through six games — it has the tools available to be able to win a shootout if necessary.

Against the Catamounts, the Chargers carried the ball a whopping 53 times, totaling just 166 yards on the night, good for a little more than three yards per carry. Their only score came on their last possession of the game, where senior fullback Will Lake bulldozed his way into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown.

Aside from that drive, which manifested after a sack-fumble on Odom that gave Northwood the ball at Panther Creek’s 43-yard-line, the offense was less-than-stellar.

“Defensively, they played their tails off and offensively, I don’t know,” said Northwood Head Coach Cullen Homolka after the game. “We can move the ball, we just aren’t doing it right now.”

While Northwood had a couple of drives where things began to click, the offense consistently stalled in the middle of Panther Creek’s territory. This resulted in a few field goal tries by star senior kicker Aidan Laros, who only connected on a 35-yarder and missed attempts of 53 and 54 yards, respectively.

Just when it seemed like the Chargers were making headway — via Jacobs bruising his way through a pack of defenders for a 5- or 10-yard gain or senior quarterback Cam Entrekin evading contact on a keeper — the defense would figure them out, limit them to a couple of short gains and force a punt, turnover or missed field goal.

It didn’t help that the Catamounts specialize in home-run plays.

Following Laros’ field goal in the second quarter to make it 7-3 in favor of Panther Creek, Odom threw a screen pass to Streeter on the first play of the drive, who ran around a couple of perfect blocks, slipped out of the grasp of a Northwood defender and sprinted down the right sideline for an 82-yard touchdown. Just like that, it was 14-3.

The Catamounts’ next two touchdowns happened on big plays, too: a wide open, 55-yard shot from Odom to senior receiver Zay Jones on the first possession of the second half, followed by Streeter’s 43-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

Northwood defended Panther Creek’s air game fairly well, allowing Odom to complete just 12 of his 34 passes (around 35%), but he still managed to rack up 343 passing yards and four touchdowns, thanks in part to his four plays over 30 yards, three of which resulted in scores.

“They were X-plays,” Homolka said. “That’s what they are, they’re an X-play team. They’re not going to come out and grind us, though they did grind it out on us a couple times. I give them props, man.”

The Chargers simply aren’t built to hit on those larger chunk plays, making it difficult to compete when a team like Panther Creek is. Northwood’s longest play of the game was a 21-yard rush by Laros in the fourth quarter that set up the team’s only touchdown.

In total, they had just four plays of 10 or more yards. Panther Creek had 10.

And even when it was a two- or three-score game, the Chargers continued to work on establishing the run. Even when it wasn’t working, or when it was clear running the ball was chewing valuable time off of the clock, they stuck with their style of play.

Northwood’s final possession, capped off by Lake’s one-yard score, was a lengthy 10-play drive that featured 10 rushes, zero passes. While it was technically successful, it took 5:03 off the clock at the end of a four-score game when the Chargers needed to pick up the pace.

“When I go watch that film it’s going to break my heart,” Homolka said. “I run the ball because we can. We’re good enough to run the ball. Ball security kills us. There’s just things we work on constantly that are the same things haunting us. Until we fix that, we are who we are.”

The Chargers’ off night against Panther Creek, while concerning Homolka, gave them a chance to see another premier passing team this season and gear up for having to face that style again down the road.

They’ll see Northern Durham (1-3) at home on Friday for their regular-season finale, a game that will be crucial to the Chargers’ playoff hopes in this condensed season.

“(After the game) I was just saying ‘Don’t forget this loss because losing is not what we need to become and we’ve got to figure out a way to beat Northern Durham,’” Homolka said. “We’ve just got a lot to work on. We’ll get there.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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