With the exception of an early scoring drive, the Nease Panthers struggled to overcome turnovers and penalties and move the ball effectively against the Middleburg Broncos at home Oct. 14, ultimately losing 20-6 on Homecoming night and dropping out of District 4-6A contention.
“We did a poor job across the board,” said Tim Krause, Nease head coach. “We really didn’t play winning football.”
Nease (1-4, 0-2), last year’s district champion, has now lost three straight games, while Middleburg (4-3, 3-0), which finished 0-10 last year, has clinched a state playoff spot for the first time since 2003.
“This is huge for our community,” said Karl Smeltzer, Middleburg head coach, with a few tears in his eyes. “These kids have been kicked. They’ve been beaten. They’ve been down a long time. This town will rally around a winner.”
Nease started strong with an impressive 10-play 53-yard drive capped off by a sneaky eight-yard touchdown run up the middle by quarterback Leighton Alley. Failing to convert the extra point, the Panthers jumped to an early 6-0 lead at the 5:18 mark of the first quarter.
Middleburg quickly responded with a strong rushing attack led by running back Robert Lowder and a 22-yard touchdown run by quarterback Garrett Blanchett to end the drive. The Broncos converted the extra point and took a 7-6 lead with 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
After a scoreless second quarter, the momentum shifted to Middleburg when Broncos safety Travis Hupp intercepted Alley on the first play of the third quarter- Alley’s second of three costly interceptions during the game. Middleburg capitalized on the turnover with a physical drive that lasted nearly five minutes and ended with a goal line touchdown run by fullback Alex Joe. A blocked extra point made the score 13-7, in favor of the Broncos, at the 6:53 mark of the third quarter.
Nease made a much-needed three and out stop with 3:03 to play in the third quarter and forced Middleburg to punt. Yet the Panthers were flagged a 15-yard penalty for having too many men on the field, providing the Broncos with a first down and the opportunity to run five minutes off the clock. The trouble continued for the Panthers with 8:15 to play in the fourth quarter when Middleburg safety Travis Hupp made another game changing play, blocking a Nease punt and positioning the Broncos offense within the red zone. Joe scored his second touchdown of the game on a five-yard run with about seven minutes to play, and Middleburg opened up their lead to 20-6 after converting the extra point.
“We executed all week in practice,” said Joe. “And we played how we practiced. It feels great.”
The Panthers struggled to stop the Broncos rushing attack, which proved to be effective once again this past week. Lowder finished with 119 yards while Joe picked up 44 yards and scored two crucial second half rushing touchdowns.
“Both Alex Joe and Robert Lowder have been huge the past two games,” said Smeltzer. “They’re looking for the hole, and they’re patient. When they see it, they hit it.”
Nease, which plays at St. Augustine (6-1, 2-0) Friday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m., failed to mount a comeback in the remaining minutes of the game.
“It was tough for us to sustain anything and finish off drives,” said Krause. “They did a good job controlling time of possession. They’re a physical football team, but they’re also a really talented football team.”