SMITH CENTER — When it comes to close contests, many football coaches will argue games come down to just a few things. The team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win, and the team that can adjust to what’s thrown at them has a better shot.
The Phillipsburg High School football team accomplished the latter Friday night in a tough Week 2 matchup on the road against Mid-Continent League rival Smith Center.
The Panthers left Hubbard Stadium with a 23-0 victory to move to 2-0, but it was seemingly a much closer ball game, due in part to Smith Center throwing something at the visitors for which they really weren’t ready.
Famous for a run-heavy Redmen wishbone attack, Phillipsburg fully expected Smith Center to come out on the first possession and hit the middle.
That wasn’t the case. Instead, Redmen senior quarterback Colton Hutchinson came out throwing the ball in a spread look, and caught the Panthers off guard.
“Figured they were just going to line up — it’s Smith Center — ground and pound,” said Phillipsburg senior linebacker John Gower. “But at the beginning they started throwing it around a little bit, and kind of confused us.”
How much did the Redmen change things up? Consider the fact Hutchinson threw 25 passes Friday night. He only attempted 86 in 12 games a season ago.
“They caught us off guard in the spread,” said Phillipsburg coach J.B. Covington. “We hadn’t prepared for that at all.”
So a defensive struggle ensued. The team’s exchanged drives with neither mounting much of an attack for the better part of the first half. Coming off a Week 1 where it put up 54 points, Phillipsburg couldn’t get much going in its run-heavy attack. That is until midway through the second quarter when the Panthers put together the game’s first scoring drive. Junior quarterback Trey Sides followed a great block on the edge from junior Treylan Gross and walked into the end zone from 7 yards.
“We tried a couple things, and just couldn’t make it work,” Smith Center coach Darren Sasse said. “Defense played really well for a long time, but eventually broke.”
But it didn’t break completely. Smith Center drove the field, but Hutchinson was picked off by Sides with a little more than two minutes to play. The Panthers responded by getting themselves in scoring position. But Sides was dropped for a big loss and fumbled. The teams went in to the locker room with Phillipsburg leading 7-0.
“Good tough game against a very good team,” Covington said. “Probably still the best team in 2A. That was a great challenge for us, and really what we needed.”
And when Phillipsburg needed a big play, Gower answered the call. The second half started with a play that set the tone the rest of the way. The senior picked the second-half kick off the ground, and took it down the visiting sideline 88 yards to the house.
“We knew they were getting tired,” Gower said. “Wanted to give them a punch, and I guess that was it.”
And the second-half adjustment by the Panthers — dropping a pair of linebackers back in coverage — paid off, as Smith Center didn’t muster much offensively the rest of the way. Phillipsburg also aimed to get more pressure up front, Covington said.
“That’s not how you want a half to start,” Sasse said of Gower's return. “You don’t have that, and maybe the mindset changes, but they executed and great teams do that.”
After Smith Center fumbled, then went three-and-out on its next two possessions, Phillipsburg found the end zone again. Sides hit senior running back Kirk Coomes right down the middle, and the senior completed the 59-yard score by outrunning the defense. Jonathan Hunnacutt tacked on a 38-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
“Pretty good win,” said Gower, who had seven tackles on defense, and led Phillipsburg’s rushing attack with 14 carries for 82 yards. The Panthers after seemingly doing anything they wanted in a win against Clay Center, couldn’t find the success on the ground.
“Their two defensive ends they’ve got are extremely tough,” Covington said. “We had trouble setting the edge on those guys on our option.”
Coomes, who put up more than 100 yards last week, had 68 on 14 touches.
Hutchinson finished with 12 carries for 44 yards to lead the Redmen on the ground. He was 9-of-25 passing for 98 yards. Sides was 5-of-8 for 102 yards and the score.
Phillipsburg now has won 14 straight regular season contests. Including playoffs, the Panthers also have won seven straight against Smith Center. The Panthers will travel to 0-2 Plainville on Friday. Smith Center is at Thomas More Prep-Marian (1-1) on Friday.