When the first-round pairings for the IHSA Class 8A football playoffs were announced, the O’Fallon Panthers received the news with some trepidation.
The local gridders, by virtue of a 4-0 run during the middle portion of their schedule, qualified for postseason play; however, their opponents, the Loyola Academy Ramblers, were entering first-round action with a perfect 9-0 record as defending state champions and with a No. 5 ranking in at least two national high school polls.
After the first quarter of last Saturday’s contest played on Loyola’s home field and well into the second half, it was the Ramblers and their fans who were sitting on the edges of their seats. But the Panthers finally ran out of gas in the final stanza.
Loyola scored two unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to down the OTHS gridders 42-14 — a final score that was not indicative of the closeness of the contest until the final minutes.
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Despite the long trek to Chicago’s northern suburbs, the Panthers showed some early offensive firepower, stunning the Ramblers with two quick scores to take a 14-7 lead by the end of the first quarter. OTHS running back Richard Causey capped O’Fallon’s first successful scoring drive with a 27-yard sprint down the sidelines. The Ramblers answered O’Fallon’s initial score, but quarterback Christian Perez connected with wide receiver Ronnie Anthony on a 40-yard touchdown strike to give the Panthers a 14-7 advantage, silencing a raucous Rambler crowd.
The two squads traded possessions early in the second period, but the Ramblers mounted a sustained drive by the midway point and knotted the score at 14-14 with four minutes remaining in the first half. On O’Fallon’s next possession, a turnover turned the momentum in Loyola’s favor. Attempting to answer Loyola’s drive with a quick scoring strike, Perez’s pass attempt was picked off. The defensive back eluded several OTHS tacklers, allowing the host Ramblers to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Panthers regrouped as the second half began, matching the home team with an aggressive defensive effort and turnover-free offensive execution. The turning point in the game occurred late in the third quarter in what, to that point, had been an even battle. With the OTHS squad still trailing 21-14, the Panthers scored what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown; however, the play was called back due to a penalty at the line of scrimmage.
“The third quarter call really changed the momentum of the game,” said OTHS head coach Brandon Joggerst. “At the time, the touchdown would have tied the game at 21-21. After that, they were able to score a touchdown before time expired in the third period to give them a 28-14 advantage going into the fourth quarter.”
The Panther gridders didn’t have an answer to the devastating turn of events. The Ramblers added two fourth-period touchdowns for the final margin of victory. The loss, however, did not diminish the OTHS players’ effort, according to their coach.
“We played extremely well for the first three quarters but just ran out of gas,” Joggerst said. “I thought our kids played hard and battled the entire game. We drew the defending state champions who were ranked No. 5 nationally and to go to their place and be competitive was a testimony to the dedication of our players.”
The 42-14 loss to Loyola Academy ended OTHS’ 2016 gridiron campaign at 5-5. It was the second straight season the Panthers have qualified for the state playoffs and their seventh playoff appearance in the last eight years.