Mistakes – two coming on basic kickoff return coverage – were pivotal in the Mead Panthers’ undoing Saturday afternoon.
The Skyline Spartans, regular playoff qualifiers, played like they had been there before as they knocked off Mead 27-17 in a State 4A football first-round playoff game at Joe Albi Stadium.
Skyline (8-3) advances to the quarterfinals and will entertain the Greater Spokane League’s last standing team, No. 3 seed Central Valley (9-2), next Saturday afternoon.
The Spartans opened the second half with a kickoff the Panthers essentially stood around and watched bounce near their sideline. Skyline junior Peyton Pelluer alertly recovered the ball before sliding out of bounds, giving the Spartans possession at Mead’s 24-yard line.
Three plays later, 6-foot-5 junior quarterback Max Browne found receiver Mason Gregory wide open in the end zone from 11 yards out as Skyline built a 20-9 lead.
Mead answered in an odd way moments later. In a Wildcat formation, junior running back Davian Barlow took the snap and fumbled the ball. He scooped it up, avoided a couple of would-be tacklers and somehow managed to find space up the gut of the Spartans’ defense before sprinting 78 yards for a TD. Mead elected to go for two on the conversion, but the Panthers were called for an illegal procedure penalty that put the ball back on the 8.
Still, Mead left its offense on the field, and Skyler Lookabill got outside the Spartans’ rush and scored to pull the Panthers within 20-17 with 10:49 to go in the third quarter.
That would be the end of Mead’s offense as the Spartans’ defense took over.
“You can’t make mistakes against a team like this,” Mead coach Sean Carty said. “Our kick return mistakes were costly. And we had some guys get hurt that we could not get hurt.”
Mead got down to its fourth center at one point. Starting center Dane Crater sprained an ankle last week and didn’t play. The Panthers went through three more Saturday.
“You can’t keep plugging away like that without all your bullets,” Carty said. “But we fought hard and they’re a good team. I’m proud of our season.”
Skyline added its final TD about 5 minutes later, when Browne hit Adan Lopez on a 37-yard connection.
The game started as if it might be a shootout.
Skyline moved 80 yards in 14 plays on its opening possession, with running back Damian Greene scoring on a 2-yard run – his eighth carry during the drive.
Mead (9-2) came right back, driving 65 yards on 11 plays. The Panthers scored on a nice play-action pass when quarterback Andy Wetzel hit tight end Danny Mattingly in the end zone on a 26-yard pass.
The Panthers took a 9-7 lead moments later when Skyline, pinned deep in its own territorty, had to punt and snapped the ball through punter Sean McDonald’s hands and out of end zone for a safety.
“We felt very good coming in. We just didn’t get it done,” Carty said.
Mattingly is one of several talented juniors who will return next year.
“We played hard but we had critical mistakes,” he said. “At times we put it to them, but they got the best of us sometimes, too.”
The game lacked the usual offensive flash Skyline is known for.
“It wasn’t sexy but our defense was unbelievable,” Skyline coach Mat Taylor said. “It’s by far our best defensive game of the year.”
Skyline’s previous best defensive effort came in a 31-17 loss to top-ranked Bellevue (3A) in a game where the Spartans committed five turnovers.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he and his assistants decided at the start of the fourth quarter to take the air out of the ball, stick to the ground and run as much time off the clock.
“We made a decision as coaches at the end of the third quarter that we’re going to wait for the (play clock) to wind all the way down and just try to take as much time off the clock as we could,” Taylor said.
Browne, who usually throws for big numbers, still had a respectable game even if his pass efficiency wasn’t his best. He completed 12 of 27 attempts for 222 yards and three TDs.
“All year we’ve said we’ve got an (offensive) line and we have the ability to run the ball and it just hasn’t been clicking,” Browne said. “We’ve had a lot of success throwing the ball, but today showed that when we had to we can run the ball. I feel like our line was the key to the game.”
Skyline did a good job of stringing out Mead’s fly offense.
“The biggest thing was is we stayed outside and tried to have our speed on the outside,” Taylor said. “We wanted to make them try to cut it up (the field).”