Sweet Home pried open the lid on the 2013 season and uncovered more problems than expected.
Penalties, at least at the start, hindered the Panthers’ offense as did an inability to stop the run. Sweet Home, nevertheless, cleaned up in the second half with solid defense including a key interception return for a touchdown by Justice Milton to register a 27-13 victory at Iroquois on Friday night.
Sweet Home, last season’s Class A state runner-up, led, 14-6, in the third quarter when Milton, a junior defensive back playing his first year of football, picked off Chiefs quarterback Josh Piesczynski and returned it 68 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
Iroquois (0-1) answered with a 1-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Brad Achman, who finished with 92 yards on 21 carries, then Anthony Vedella picked off Kevin Torrillo, giving the Chiefs the ball on their own 49. But nail-hammering time came for Sweet Home (1-0) when Jordan Evert intercepted Piesczynski on third and 16.
On offense, Evert finished with 158 yards on 16 carries.
The Panthers generally are untested until the postseason, and while Iroquois is rebuilding it was 7-2 last year and knows how to win. For Panthers coach John Faller, now in his 28th season, there’s nothing wrong with a good old open-the-season test drive.
“Nobody likes to have a game like this on the first one but in hindsight it will make us better because we’ve been under pressure and we answered the bell a little bit I would say,” Faller said. “That’s going to help us down the line because if you beat a team handily you think you’re good but you’re not. I’ll take this for what it is, it’s a win.”
The Panthers, winners of 69 of their last 73 games, have won six consecutive Section VI Class A championships but return only four starters from last year’s 12-1 team and it showed early. In the first half alone Sweet Home was whistled for nine penalties for 73 yards and led by only 8-6.
“You still have to replace seven guys on defense and offense and that’s not easily done,” Faller said. “We had some holds and we had some new guys out there – there weren’t a lot of veterans out there – and it showed. We have to overcome those type of things.”
But the Panthers grabbed the momentum quickly by scoring on their opening drive in the second half, then Milton came up with the biggest play of the night with some help from his friends up front, who pressured Piesczynski into attempting an off-balance throw.
“I saw the receiver come back on the curl so I decided to come up and I knew I had the pick off the bat but the problem was returning it,” Milton said. “I tried my best and in my mind I was thinking: run, run, run. I’m trying to take it back to the house. It was a real clutch play for the team.”
Said Faller: “Justice came through and made a good break on the ball. He’s got good quickness, he’s still learning football and he’s a first-year player for us. He made the right move then used his God-given talent to sneak down the sideline there and made a great run.”
The Panthers’ Brandon Smiley set up Sweet Home’s first score by cutting outside and sprinting down the right sideline for a 48-yard run. He was finally knocked out of bounds by Iroquois defensive back Jeff Yax. Two plays later, Torrillo hit Smiley on a screen for a 6-yard touchdown and an 8-0 Sweet Home advantage.
Iroquois answered with an 11-play drive highlighted by Piesczynski’s 21-yard pass to Yax to the Sweet Home 32 on the drive’s opening play. Piesczynski scored on a sneak but the 2-point conversion failed and the Panthers led, 8-6.
Iroquois tight end Justin Krzemien left the game with 1:41 left in the first quarter after suffering a collarbone injury while trying to make a reception. He was taken off the field by ambulance.