Lenoir City is not accustomed to hosting playoff games. The buzz surrounding Friday night's game was evident as Panthers fans packed the stands for the team's opening game of the 5A playoffs, a 44-16 win over Walker Valley.
The Panthers got off to a slow start, going three and out on their first two drives while giving up a field goal to Walker Valley. Bothered by the speed of Walker Valley's defenders, something Lenoir City head coach Mike Zeller said earlier in the week may give the team problems, Lenoir City gave up pressure on quarterback Jordan Hall early.
"It took a while for our offensive line to pick up the pressure," Zeller said. "You just can't simulate that in practice, that kind of speed. It took our line a while to adjust."
On the team's third offensive drive, though, the Panthers took to the ground. Caleb Wilson rushed for 20 yards on three carries, helping provide time for Hall to find Lucas Hamilton for 36 yards and a touchdown. Hamilton caught the pass and shook off the one defender before trotting into the end zone.
Walker Valley responded with an 18-play, 62-yard drive, but missed a field goal attempt. Lenoir City found a good rhythm offensively. Hall connected with Hamilton three times for 17 yards and Wilson broke a rush of 28 before Hall connected with Jaylond Woods for 35 yards as Woods blew by the safety on the way to the score.
On the very next play, Dakota Watson intercepted a pass from Walker Valley quarterback Garrett Wallace setting up another Lenoir City touchdown. It was Woods again, following up a 21-yard rush from Hall with a 7-yard scoring run.
"We started out a little rough, but once we started playing our game we got into it," Woods said. "I think it's just where our head was at, coming in all big-headed at first and then finally getting back down to earth."
The Mustangs were able to respond as Justin Ware was able to break free for an 80-yard touchdown run. Lenoir City led 21-10 at the half, but allowed 189 total yards to Walker Valley in the first two quarters.
"They came out with some formations that we hadn't practiced and hadn't seen, some unbalanced things," Zeller said. "I think it threw us off a little bit. They broke some big runs because of that, but we've got to do a better job making tackles. On those runs, I thought we had the guy tackled, but they've got some good players too."
Lenoir City held the Mustangs to a three and out on the opening drive of the second half, but a muffed punt gave the ball right back to Walker Valley. However, on the next play, the Mustangs fumbled the ball back to the Panthers.
Two plays after the fumble Hall threw a quick screen out to Woods who found a seem and ran 47 yards down the left sideline for his third touchdown of the game."To me, I want to be able to come out every game and be positive and do something good for my team," Woods said. "We're in the playoffs, single elimination. Every play counts and I just wanted to make every play that I had count."
Walker Valley would respond for the last time in the game as Ware broke another long rush, this time for 72 yards, for a touchdown. A penalty against Lenoir City on the point after gave the Mustangs the ball on the one and they failed to convert for two points.
On the ensuing possession the Panthers were able to put together another strong offensive scoring drive. The crucial play came on third down and seven from Lenoir City's 46. Hall dropped back to pass, but under pressure decided to tuck and run, breaking a tackle to pick up 15 yards and a new set of downs.
"He doesn't get rattled," Zeller said of his senior signal caller. "You can bring pressure at him, he'll take some hits, but he seems to come through. We needed a first down and he just got it out and took it and got the first down himself. That says a lot about him."
Hall said he understands his running ability makes him a dangerous quarterback, but was quick to pass the credit.
"Our offensive line did a terrific job tonight," he said. "I have to give them all the credit. Coach (Chris) Brittain does a great job every week of knowing what defense they're running and where the pressure's going to be coming from. He just helps me every week knowing where to step up and everything."
On the play following Hall's first down rush, Woods took the handoff from his quarterback and ran 39 yards for a score. It was Woods' fourth touchdown of the game and the student section began chanting his name.
"He's just a special player when we can get the ball in his hands," Zeller said. "We've got a lot of kids who can make plays. I thought our offense did a good job spreading the ball around tonight."
Up 34-16, the Panthers took their foot off the gas. Ryan Weaver scored one final touchdown, and kicker Dakota Vincil, who heard cheers from the crowd as well as he kicked the ball into the end zone on all but one kickoff attempt, added a 38-yard field goal.
"We were able to throw the ball fairly well and I though we ran the ball fairly well too," Zeller said. "Anytime you can put those kinds of points on the board you've had a good day offensively."
The Panthers don't have long to celebrate their home playoff win as they now turn their attention to Ooltewah, who will come to Lenoir City for a 7 p.m. round two game Nov. 9.
"It starts about an hour from now, it really does," Zeller said right after the game. "You start thinking about the next one. We'll meet tomorrow to break down film."