STRATFORD – Heading into a weekend which features a rematch of one of the NFL’s great playoff games last season, Stratford and Panhandle decided to give area high school fans something to remember Friday night.
It’s safe to say that the Bills and Chiefs could do worse than to emulate what the Elks and Panthers did at E.L. Bass Stadium.
Playing on a real grass surface in what could be called the District 1-2A Division I championship game, defending state champion Stratford got all it could handle from Panhandle. It took a late defensive stop by the Elks in the final minute to preserve a memorable 40-35 victory in which both offenses seemed to do whatever they pleased in the second half.
In the end, Stratford (7-0, 2-0 in district) showed why it has now won 19 straight games going back to last season. This might have been the toughest of them.
“Panhandle does such a great job,” Stratford coach Matt Lovorn said. “We’ve got so much respect for those guys. They’re very well-coached and for them to come up here it was a very exciting football game. We knew it was going to be back and forth and we talked about it all week.”
The team’s quarterbacks and top running backs seemed to almost exclusively touch the ball in the second half. Stratford’s Bryce Braden and Zane Burr battled Panhandle’s Landyn Hack and Wyatt Brookshire in a can-you-top-this duel after halftime.
Stratford never punted and after halftime the Elks made no secret of what they wanted to do offensively. Quarterback Braden and running back Burr combined to run for all but 11 of Stratford’s 396 yards.
The Elks scored touchdowns on all four of their second half possessions with an offense which was painfully predictable but brutally efficient. It resembled the old single wing, although it’s popularly known now as the wildcat.
“We just wanted to see how (Panhandle) would adjust to it, especially with the guys up front,” Lovorn said. “It was working for it so we just stayed in it. We were just going to stick with our game plan until they stopped it and our offensive line just did a phenomenal job of opening up holes in the second half.”
Burr (211 yards, three touchdowns on 23 carries) and Braden (174 yards, 2 TDs, 21 carries), seemed to take turns running with the direct snap and gashing Panhandle (5-2, 1-1) for yardage. In the second half, only one Stratford running back or receiver handled the ball other than Burr and Braden, and that was when Braden hit older brother Luke Braden on a 34-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give the Elks a 28-14 lead.
Prior to that, the Elks took the lead for the first time on a 20-yard scoring run by Burr to make it 20-14.
“It kind of developed as the game went along,” Burr said of Stratford’s ground bound game plan. “Whoever was tired, the other one would get the ball. We were trying to get as many yards as we could each play. That’s kind of what Stratford’s about, putting it on the floor and running over everybody.”
But Panhandle wouldn’t go down without a fight. Hack scored on a 4-yard run with 18 seconds left in the third quarter, then Stratford fumbled away the ensuing kickoff to give the Panthers the ball at Stratford’s 10-yard line.
Brookshire, who ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, scored on a 1-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter to tie the game 28-28.
A little over three-minutes later, Burr capped another meat-grinder drive with a 1-yard scoring run to make it 34-28. Less than two minutes later, the Panthers took a 35-34 lead when on fourth down, Hack hit Landon Durst on a 12-yard scoring pass.
It only took 84 seconds for Stratford to respond, as Braden kept it for a 27-yard score to make it 40-35 with 5:40 left in the game.
“Me and Zane talked about it at halftime that we needed to lead the team,” Braden said. “We’re good up front and it’s a fun way of doing things, just slow and steady down the field. It’s definitely up there but I’m not sure it’s the best (game running the ball).”
The only problem for the Elks was that Panhandle still had plenty of time to march down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. Panhandle moved to the Stratford 28, but thanks in large part to an illegal block penalty, faced a fourth-and-28 with under a minute left.
Hack’s pass fell just short of Cuyler Mize, and the Elks were finally able to breathe.
“We were able to move the ball up and down the field but we hurt ourselves with some penalties,” Panhandle coach Dane Ashley said. “I feel like over the last few years our program has changed in that we don’t worry so much about the name that’s on the other jersey. For that I’m extremely, extremely proud of our kids.”
Mize had nine catches for 124 yards and Hack accounted for 257 yards of offense.
The Panthers led 14-12 in the first half and looked like they were going to have a two-score lead going into the half when Brookshire broke loose for an 81-yard scoring run. However, Brookshire was flagged for taunting during the run and the touchdown was disallowed.
Panhandle got down to the Stratford 9 and tried a 26-yard field goal in the final seconds, but Hack’s kick was wide left.