Fans of the Russellville Panthers watched the 2015 season come to a close on Friday night with a 34-25 loss to the visiting Beechwood Tigers at Rhea Stadium.
Russellville finished the season 11-3 overall and only one game away from a trip to Western Kentucky University’s Houchens L.T. Smith Stadium and the Class 1A State Championship. Beechwood will advance to that Championship game on Thursday night to face the Pikeville Panthers. Pikeville defeated Paintsville 42-23 on Friday night to earn the trip to the Championship game.
The Panthers were 21 point underdogs as this game got underway. Head Coach John Myers had the team ready to play. The Russellville squad seemed in no way intimidated by the bigger Tigers as the game got underway.
Rhea Stadium was filled with Panther faithful and a large contingent of Beechwood fans that had made the near-three-hour trip to Russellville to cheer their team on. The weather at kickoff was near perfect; 66 degrees, no wind, and a very light drizzle of rain that would come and go throughout the contest.
Beechwood was first to have the ball. The Tigers would hold the ball for nearly five minutes, mixing a running attack with short ball-control passing. The 60 yard opening drive would be capped by a 12 yard run for a TD by the Tiger star Brett Slusher. The kick after was good and gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead at the 7:30 mark of the first quarter.
After an impressive, ball-controlling, drive like the Tigers had just displayed, some in attendance wondered just how the Panthers would react. From the first contact of the game, the Beechwood squad was hitting hard and the Panthers were responding in kind.
Russellville would respond as they have all season. Beginning at their own 15 yard line, two hard runs by Drew West, then a 15 yard gain by MJ Jones, then a 58 yard breakaway run to the house by the Class 1A Player of the Year, Joshua Bigbee, brought the Panther fans to their feet and humbled the Tigers and their fans. Milam Watkins’ kick after tied the score at 7-7 with 6:04 left in the first.
In Beechwood’s next possession, a second down and 11 pass-play to Slusher was good for 15 yards and a first down at the Russellville 23 yard line. Three plays later, Tigers QB Kyle Fieger’s passing play breaks down and he keeps the ball and scrambles to the end zone. After the kick, the Tigers lead 14-7 at just over a minute left in the first quarter.
The Panthers began their next drive from their own 36 yard line. As time in the first quarter ticked down, Bigbee took the handoff and ran for several very tough yards. At the end of the run, the Beechwood defender gave a bit more punishment than he should have. This drew a response from Bigbee. The flags flew and the officials, having missed the first offense, caught the Panther on the second. After the dust settled, the Panthers would face a first and 20 with :34 seconds left in the first. A good run by Jones made it second and two as the first quarter expired. After one, Beechwood 14, Russellville 7.
The Panthers opened the second quarter with a drive for a TD, but not before some nifty heads-up play by Panther QB Jaylyn McMurry. On a broken play and about to be sacked for a loss, McMurry shovelled a pass to West and turned a big loss into a drive-sustaining big gain and first down. Later, McMurray kept the ball for a one-yard sneak into the end zone. The try for two points after is no-good, so at 7:30 to go in the half, Beechwood holds the lead 14-13 over the Panthers.
On Beechwood’s next possession, a fine mix of run and pass helped push the ball deep into Panther territory. With a first and ten at the Panther 17 yard line, Russellville took a time out. The Panthers would slow the Tigers but be unable to stop them. At 4:55 the Tigers’ Slusher finds the end zone. With the point after the Tigers lead, 21-13.
In their next possession, in spite of hard running and heads up play by Russellville’s Jones (he recovered a teammate’s fumble to keep the ball out of the Tigers’ hands), the Panthers would be forced to make the game’s first punt on fourth and ten at the 48 yard line with 2:20 remaining in the half. A good punt by Jones put the Tigers at their eleven yard line.
Again mixing run and pass, the Tigers advanced the ball to the Panther 40 yard line for a second down and two to go and caused a time out to be called by Russellville. After the timeout, Panther Damon Hales got to the Tiger QB for a sack and a loss of 15 yards. The next play was a big-time stop by TK Hampton who stuffed the runner for a short gain. The Panther defense had made some real noise. The Tigers would run the clock to end the first half.
Teams went to break with Beechwood leading Russellville 21-13.
The Panthers received the ball to begin the second half. Jacob Naylor returned the Tigers’ kick-off to the Russellville 21 yard line. Bigbee’s 16 yard dash on the second play from scrimmage brought the Panther faithful to their feet, cow-bells a’ ringing. The bells were still echoing in Rhea Stadium when on the next play Bigbee took the handoff and dashed 63 yards for his second breakaway TD of the night. Less than 90 seconds into the half the panthers were within two points, trailing 19-21.
The Panthers would need to figure a way to stop the Tigers’ attack. The Panther defense tapped into the energy discovered as the first half closed and stepped up. When Fieger’s third down and 14 to go long pass was underthrown and fell incomplete, the Tigers were forced to punt for the first time in the contest.
The Panthers took over at their own 34 after the punt. Unable to get going, the Panthers went three and out, punting back to Beechwood.
Like boxers exchanging blows in the middle rounds of a prize fight, neither team clearly winning a round, Beechwood was forced to punt. Another three and out and the Panthers punt to the Tigers.
Just as time ran down in the quarter, Beechwood’s Aiden Justice ran 38 yards for a TD. With a good kick after, the Tigers lead 28-19 over the Panthers with 18 seconds to go in the third quarter.
Russellville opened the final period with a second down and three yards to go at their own 31 yard line. An incomplete pass brought up fourth and three and the Panthers lined up to run a play for the first down. After a moment, it is clear that the Panthers hope to draw the defense off-side. Seeing that this won’t work, the Panthers call a quick timeout at 11:05 to go in the game.
After the timeout the Panthers ran a pass play that caught the defense off guard but still fell incomplete. The Tigers took over on downs at the Russellville 31 yard line.
Beechwood drove the short field to a first and goal at the six yard line. Playing now to use up as much time as possible, the 25 yards the Tigers had travelled so far used over two valuable minutes of clock. Slusher managed a score, but the point after is no good. Beechwood’s lead is now 34-19.
Hoping to catch the Panthers off-guard, the Tigers’ ensuing kickoff is a squib kick. The Panthers managed to recover the ball and begin a drive from their own 34 yard line.
The Panthers worked their way down and into the Tigers’ red zone. After a measurement, and the ruling of third and inches, Bryson Thomas made his way in from six yards out for a TD. The try for two points after was no good and the score was Russellville 25, Beechwood 34.
The Panthers stopped the Tigers next drive forcing a punt by the visitors.
The Panthers began their final drive of the evening from their own 10 yard line. With the Beechwood fans louder than they had been all night, with the Panthers fans anxiously and quietly watching, the Panthers would run out of time.
Final score, Beechwood Tigers 34, Russellville Panthers 25.
In the loss, the Panthers would gain over 350 total yards. Joshua Bigbee ran the ball 16 times, gaining 196 yards and scoring two TDS. Jaylyn McMurray and Bryson Thomas each added a TD. Milam Watkins was one for one in extra point kick attempts. At QB, McMurry was four for eight for 57 yards.
In interviews after the game, Head Coach John Myers spoke very highly of his team. The Coach was especially appreciative of the seniors on the Panthers squad, including Mason Aguirre, Richard Thomas, Joshua Bigbee, Truston Clayton, Trey Matthews, and Jason Mitchell.
“We’re proud of our kids and the fight we put up,” Myers told WRUS. “I’m gonna miss them. (The seniors) left their mark on Russellville High School football,” added Coach Myers.