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Panthers punish Bulldogs for D-4 championship
Dominating defense got the Maxwell High football team into the Division IV championship game and shut down the potent Fall River passing attack for a 35-7 victory Nov. 27 in Maxwell.
The Panthers (11-2) never punted and went up 35-0 on the first play of the fourth quarter to force a running clock as they claimed the school's fourth football section title and joined the volleyball team as Northern Section champions.
Maxwell lost its first two games of the season before ripping through the rest of the schedule. Only Fall River came within one score in Maxwell's final 11 games — a 27-20 Panthers' victory in overtime on Sept. 27.
"We knew we had to come out and play powerhouse football," Panthers senior quarterback Blake Vierra said. "There's no better feeling in the world — I lost to them in the baseball championship in extra innings."
Fall River won the first three football section final games between the teams — all within the last decade — and did the same in three baseball championships, including a 6-5 extra-innings victory in 2012 against a Panthers team which featured seven of the current football players.
Vierra was a sophomore on that baseball team and a big part of Maxwell's success on offense, completing all five passes he threw for 129 yards and rushing for 94 yards and three touchdowns.
After a few tense minutes early in the first quarter, the Panthers' defense established a hard-hitting, shutdown defense and the offense was nearly flawless.
"We didn't punt the whole game and we had a good game plan on defense," Maxwell coach Robert Wilson said, crediting the work of defensive coordinator Mikey Badaluco. "We were really good against the run all year, and they took some good chunks against us, but we really slowed their passing game."
The only blemish of the night came after Fall River went three-and-out on its first drive and punted to Brian Burg. The junior returned the punt 18 yards but coughed up a fumble on the Maxwell 48-yard line.
A sack by sophomore defensive tackle Favian Rolon, a tackle for a loss by senior defensive tackle Jose Herrera and a pass defended on fourth-and-9 by senior defensive back Bryce Perry bailed Burg out and gave Maxwell offense the ball for the first time.
"A defensive stop is the most exciting thing on the football field," Burg said. "A lot of (getting over the fumble) is my coaches, they drilled in my head to put it behind me."
Burg took a hand-off 18 yards on the Panthers' first offensive play, and Vierra connected with senior receiver Santiago Gonzalez for a 21-yard gain on a third-and-15 to set up a 14-yard touchdown run by Vierra.
The Bulldogs mounted a drive to the Maxwell 18, but junior Isaias Martinez knocked away a third-down pass in the end zone and Fall River sophomore quarterback Jace Neugebauer's keeper on fourth down came up well short.
"He's shifty, but we knew we could get pressure on him and keep him off balance," Herrera said. "This team is like family, we came together and worked hard for this."
Vierra twice hit Burg for big gains on quick screens behind blocks by towering senior offensive lineman Zach Troughton and then Burg followed right tackle Andrew Vargas in for a 9-yard touchdown for a 14-0 lead at halftime.
Maxwell got the ball first after halftime and marched 78 yards on five plays and Vierra plowed up the middle for a 23-yard touchdown run.
Trailing 21-0, the Bulldogs abandoned the running game, but unlike the first time the teams played this season, a 27-20 overtime win by Maxwell, the Panthers defense shut down the seams and brought pressure.
Neugebauer scrambled and fired an off-balance pass which Burg picked off and returned about 20 yards to the Bulldogs' 39.
Then Burg broke a 33-yard run and Vierra scored his for the third time with a 6-yard run to the right side.
Martinez pinned Fall River back at the 20 with his third touchback on the night, but Neugebauer connected on two long passes and the Bulldogs drove to the Panthers' 16-yard line before the pressure forced another off-balance throw.
This time senior linebacker Eddie Rangel intercepted the ball at the 5-yard line and returned it 16 yards. On the first play of the third quarter, Burg scored from 3 yards out for a 35-0 lead and triggered a running clock.
Burg finished the game with 129 yards and two touchdowns rushing, three catches for 100 yards and intercepted a pass. The Panthers ran for 245 yards on just 29 carries, putting the team's total yards at 374.
Rangel ran for 22 yards and was a force on defense with 11 tackles and an interception. Troughton made a sack and senior linebacker A.J. Rolon made six tackles.
Neugebauer flipped a shovel pass to Johnathon Westlund for a 51-yard touchdown with seven minutes left, but the Bulldogs would never get the ball back.
Fall River (9-4) managed just 93 yards on 30 carries while Neugebauer was held to 8 of 15 passing for 156 yards and a touchdown, with more than 100 of his passing yards came on the Bulldogs final two drives.
CONTACT Kirk Barron at 749-4789