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Game of the week - Panthers secure playoff bid

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

NORTON -- Senior running back Michael Dusin was a key part of the Phillipsburg High School football team's 7-2 season in 2012, but the fall ended short of the playoffs with a 20-7 upset home loss to rival Norton in Week 9.

"That was not a good deal," Dusin said. "I have just been waiting for this game since last year, because it was not a pretty sight."

On Thursday, Phillipsburg had its chance at redemption. The situation was the same as 2012: Win and go to the playoffs, lose and the season is over. Phillipsburg trailed by two scores midway through the first quarter, but came back for a 20-16 victory at Travis Field.

"I am happy for the kids, because I have seen how much they put into it, and you see the hurt feeling on their faces last year," Panther coach J.B. Covington said. "You knew they were really going to work hard to get back to this game."

Phillipsburg moved to 8-1, earned the Class 3A, District 14 runner-up spot to Beloit, and will travel to Salina-Sacred Heart for the first round of the playoffs Tuesday. Norton finished 5-4. Eight of the last 10 meetings between the rivals are within 16 points and five are within seven. Philipsburg collected the Mid-Continent League championship with the victory.

"We knew we had to come play," Panther senior wide receiver Grant Wickham said. "Every year, they give us a dogfight. Emotionally, everybody was cranked, because everybody remembered last year, we didn't play the best."

Early on, Norton controlled the game and jumped out to an early 13-0 lead. Late, the Bluejays committed three turnovers and sophomore quarterback Jordan Dole suffered a game-ending knee injury when he fumbled on Norton's penultimate drive. Norton finished minus-6 on turnover margin this year.

"Not taking anything away from their team, we played well enough to beat them, and that's why I am proud of my kids, because, really nobody thought we had a chance," Norton coach Lucas Melvin said. "That's pretty special, and they sold out, and they wanted to win. We just didn't quite get it done. It goes back to the things that have hurt us all year, that's turnovers and penalties."

At times, the Panthers have started slowly. In Week 8, Phillipsburg trailed Minneapolis 3-0 midway through the first quarter, but then delivered a blowout victory. This time, Phillipsburg had minus-4 yards on its first two drives. Norton scored on a 23-yard run from senior Tanner Furbush, and then Furbush had a 4-yard score.

"We weren't playing like ourselves," Phillipsburg senior quarterback Riley Juenemann said. "We were just playing scared."

At halftime, Furbush had 15 carries for 91 yards, including multiple broken tackles on second and third efforts, and two catches for 34 yards.

"It took us awhile," Covington said. "Norton came out and executed very well. They were much more aggressive than we were offensively. They had our defense back on our heels, and they were just gapping us."

After Furbush's second TD, Phillipsburg faced a 2nd-and-6 from the Norton 46-yard line. Earlier in the game, the Panthers ran what Melvin called the "H bubble," a play Phillipsburg had practiced throughout the season, but hadn't used it in a game. It didn't work the first time.

This occasion, Norton called out the play, but the Panthers ran the play to perfection. Juenemann turned and threw to the athletic 6-foot-4, 205-pound Wickham in the flat. Wickham noticed Norton was playing 15 yards off the ball and knew "it was going to be a good play."

"We tried to use what the defense gives us and we find a hole, and so we took advantage of it on that play," Juenemann said. "Coach called that play, and it was a great play call on that."

Wickham caught the ball and had a great block from senior split end Trey Ellis, who missed part of the season with a broken arm. Ellis' block sprung Wickham into the open and he raced 46 yards for the TD. Phillipsburg cut the deficit to 13-7.

"Our guy didn't come up like he was supposed to, and we didn't make the play," Melvin said. "Wickham is a very good athlete, and you give him any room, and he is going to burn you on it."

Bluejay senior Austin Hager delivered a 30-yard field goal at the 8:27 mark of the third quarter. Norton didn't score again.

"Our kids just buckled down, and we got a little better defensively, technique-wise and being more aggressive," Covington said.

"We started to match Norton's aggressiveness a little bit. ... You could see timeouts and whatnot, they were starting to feed off each other, and talking about what we need to do offensively."

On the next drive, Phillipsburg closed the game to 20-16 on a 3-yard run by Juenemann. In the third quarter, Norton tried a fake punt and came up just short.

"They did a lot of good things defensively to try to adjust to the things that we were having success on," Melvin said.

After that, Phillipsburg tacked on the game's final points on a four-yard run by Dusin. Norton had just 71 yards in the second half, including 35 rushing yards on eight carries from Furbush.

"We turned it up the second quarter," Dusin said. "We had a slow start, but we finished pretty dang good."