CLIFTON — Through a half of football Friday night, Central coach Brian Spooner was less-than-pleased with the way his Comets came out of the gate for their Homecoming matchup with Paxton-Buckley-Loda. The game was tied at 14, but Spooner was’t happy with the lack of energy his team displayed in a pivotal Sangamon Valley Conference matchup.
“I don’t know what the deal was in the first half with us, we just didn’t seem very fired up and weren’t emotionally keyed into the game,” Spooner said. “I was kind of disappointed because this game had a huge amount of implications in terms of the conference race and the playoffs.”
But the Comets were able to find the fire Spooner desired on a chilling October night, as the defense shutout the Panthers and the offense hit paydirt twice to come away with a 29-14 win to remain undefeated at 7-0 and 5-0 in the SVC.
“To be honest, we didn’t yell or scream a lot at the kids at halftime, we basically just challenged to come out and play the way they’re capable of playing on both sides of the ball,” Spooner said. “And it worked, because obviously we didn’t give up another point and our offense scored two touchdowns.”
The Panthers were the first team to strike when Drake Schrodt took a snap from the Wildcat formation and lept over a pile for a two-yard score.
Howver, the Comets struck back right away, as quarterback Jay Lemenager evaded pressure and scrambled out of the pocket before finding Chandler Burrow for a 27-yard score on third-and-five to tie things at six apiece with two minutes left in the first.
“We’ve played together so long and we just know what to do,” Burrow said. “When Jay’s rolling out or under pressure, we tell him to just throw it up and give us a chance to make a play. He did just that and I made the play for him.”
After a Panthers punt, the Comets struck again when Garrett Graham hurled in from a yard out to make it a 14-6 Central lead five minutes into the second quarter.
After Burrow picked off his seventh pass of the season, the Comets appeared to have taken a tight grip on the game’s momentum, but after a turnover on downs at the Panthers’ 13-yard line, P-B-L’s Hunter Anderson busted loose for an 87-yard score to result in the halftime score of 14-14.
Neither team was able to get much going in the early stages of the third quarter, but the Comets finally took control as the third turned into the fourth. Lemenager capped off a nine-play, four-minute drive with a 23-yard rushing score to give the Comets a 22-14 lead.
Lemenager finished with a game-high 168 yards on 15 carries, with 122 of those yards coming in the second half. Lemenager said that the Panthers were focusing in on Graham at the mesh point of many read options in the first half, so a halftime adjustment to start keeping those options yielded major returns.
“We saw they were biting on the play fakes to Garrett, so we just had to buckle down,” Lemenager said. “The linemen made great plays for whoever carried the ball. It starts with them and they did a great job.”
Jacob Shoven picked off a pass on the next Panther possession and then scored on a jet sweep from two yards out with a minute left to put the game on ice, although Lemenager added an interception of his own two plays later for good measure.
The win gave the Comets a game lead over the Panthers with two weeks to play, putting them in the driver’s seat to win a third-straight SVC crown. Spooner said that winning the conference is on the Comets’ lenghty list of goals this season.
“I think the kids are pretty fired up about it,” Spooner said. “It’s one of the goals we’ve set out for ourselves — we’ve won it two years in a row and I think the kids want to prove we can win it again.
“It’s a really special feeling to win the conference, you get a year’s long of pride on the other teams in your conference,” he added. “We’re not trying to rub it in anyone’s face, but it’s an awesome feeling when you can accomplish that.
“But we still have a long ways to go ... we still have two games left.”
Lemenager added 128 yards and a score on 8-for-16 passing to his 168 rushing yards. Graham had 54 yards on the ground and his score. Shoven had 56 receiving yards on two catches and 30 yards and his touchdown on three carries. Burrow had 51 receiving yards and a score on three catches and 15 rushing yards on four carries.
While Burrow, Shoven and Lemenager had a pick apiece in the secondary, Caleb Toberman recovered a fumble and had two tackles for loss. Graham also had two backfield stops.
The Comets will travel to Gilman Friday to take on Iroquois West at 7 p.m.