The Knoxville Panther varsity football team is 4-0, following a thrilling 31-21 win over Chariton at Ken Locke Stadium Friday night.
The Panthers took the field under steamy conditions, with the opening kickoff burying Chariton on their own nine. The Chargers got nowhere on the opening possession and were forced to punt, putting the Panthers on their own 46.
From there, quarterback Kieren Nichols connected with Mike Hudson for a big gain on a third and 11. On the next play at the Charger 40, Nichols connected with Keegen Cox to put the Panthers on the board. Wyatt Darnell kicked the extra point to give Knoxville a 7-0 lead early in the first.
It wasn’t until the second quarter that the Chargers would strike back. After some luck with the officials, a Nichols interception on defense was nullified with a roughing the passer call. However, on the very next play, Cox took the ball back with an interception in the end zone to put the Panther offense back on the field at their own 20.
Unfortunately, the Panthers could not capitalize on that drive and put the ball back in the Chargers’ hands. They took advantage of the opportunity to tie the game at 7 with 2:42 left in the half.
The Chargers offered zero chances for Knoxville’s returners to take a kickoff back. On this particular drive, Knoxville could not get a rhythm going and gave the ball back to Chariton. Chariton was able to strike again before the end of the half to go into the break with a 14-7 lead.
Knoxville’s defense continued to put on an impressive display throughout the third quarter while the offense kept fighting, but to no avail. The only points scored in the third were a field goal by Darnell from 18 yards out. Knoxville was again robbed of two turnovers, as one Cox interception was called back on a pass interference call and a second was missed when Cox was pushed by the receiver. There was no call on the push.
With a 14-10 Chariton lead going into the fourth, the Panther faithful helped keep Knoxville in the game. An interception led to another Chariton touchdown early in the quarter to give the red and white a 21-10 lead.
The Panthers would not be denied and the next drive was inspiring. On their own 32, Nichols took off to the 45. From there, Carter Bailey ran for nine more. Nichols then got it through to the 22 before he connected with Hudson to get it to the four on the next play. Cox got the ball and took it home with 9:23 left in the game. The two-point conversion fell short, leaving the score at 21-16.
The defense again stood tall and forced another Charger punt. With a penalty, the Panthers were pushed back to their own five. From there, Cox continued to gain yards on the ground before Nichols took off for a 53-yard touchdown run – shaking off defenders the entire way.
Bailey ran in the two-point conversion to put the Panthers up 24-21. With 3:13 left in the game, the Panther defense sacked Chariton for an eight-yard loss. Ben Olson led the defense to put the Chargers in a fourth and 18 situation. An incomplete pass turned the ball back over to Knoxville.
With 1:27 left in the game, a snap hit Bailey in the face. What may have been trouble for the Panthers led to another score when Bailey scooped the ball up and ran it in for the touchdown. Nichols was on the two-point conversion to put Knoxville up 31-21.
Chariton was not quite done and took several chances to get the ball downfield. Darnell was able to get in front of one of them that could have been a touchdown for a game-ending interception.
“This is just a great team,” Darnell said. “A lot of people came back, with good varsity experience. The close game showed we have a lot of character, too.” He said his success in the game was due to listening to his coaches.
Head Coach Eric Kellar said the team did not play to its potential in the first half. They discussed at halftime what needed to be done to win and his team stepped up and got the victory.
“I’m proud of them,” Kellar said.
“I think we played very well,” Cox said. “We came out, expecting to do very well. We were dominant in the second half, overcame adversity. The thought of the team was to get the lead, keep it up and flush what happened in the first.”
Cox added that it was a good team win, and “Go Panthers!”
Final stats were unavailable as of our original post. The 4-0 Panthers cross the Red Rock Dam to face the Pella High Little Dutch in Pella’s homecoming game Friday night.