The Midway Panthers made enough plays on offense, defense and special teams to win their home opener against Mansfield on Friday night.
But one momentum-shifting play late in the third quarter sure helped Midway breathe easier on the way to a 24-14 victory over the Tigers at Panther Stadium.
Midway led 17-7 when Mansfield marched inside the Panthers’ 10. The Tigers were clicking better than they had all night and looking to take a big bite out of Midway’s tenuous lead. However, the opportunity to put pressure on the Panthers slipped away in an instant as Mansfield quarterback Aaron Funk made an awkward handoff to full back Brian Williams.
Panthers defensive back Dae-Dae Walker sensed a fumble coming and seized it.
“I saw the quarterback bobble the snap before he even handed it off,” Walker said. “The running back kind of kicked it out and I just got it and went as fast as I could.”
While Williams was still pounding the turf in disbelief, Walker raced toward the other end zone. Funk couldn’t catch the Midway defender and Walker notched a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Instead of seeing its lead cut to three points, Midway surged ahead 24-7. The Panthers didn’t relinquish control the rest of the way.
“That was a huge momentum shift,” Midway coach Terry Gambill said. “You’re hoping that you get a break and we got a break.”
The combination of Midway quarterback Ben Hicks and wide receiver Devontre Stricklin turned the Panthers wheels on offense for most of the night. Stricklin finished with 11 catches for 133 yards while Hicks passed for 208 and two touchdowns.
Midway’s defense refused to let Mansfield standout Emmanuel Esukpa break loose. Esukpa rushed for 269 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers defeated Flower Mound Marcus in the season opener last week. But the Panthers kept Esukpa from posting a run of longer than 7 yards for the first three quarters. He finally found some daylight in the fourth quarter, but still managed only 91 yards on 22 carries.
“That’s what we wanted to do was slow him down,” Gambill said.
Midway and Mansfield each took advantage of the other’s mistakes to score their initial touchdowns.
Mansfield boldly went for a fourth-and-2 from its own 44 late in the first quarter, handing the ball to Esukpa. But Esukpa was bounced backward by the Midway front and lost three yards.
Given the ball in Tigers territory, Midway moved in quickly. The Panthers ran for a first down, sucking the Mansfield defense in just enough to make room for Stricklin in the secondary. Hicks found Stricklin open over the middle and Stricklin eluded the Tiger defense for a 29-yard touchdown.
But, early in the second quarter, a Hicks bobble gave Mansfield the chance to equalize. Hicks juggled a low snap and Tigers safety Sean Shanklin snuck through on a blitz to bang Hicks and separate the Midway quarterback from the ball. Tigers linebacker Jacob Mapes recovered the fumble, giving Mansfield the ball at the Midway 39.
Three plays later, Mansfield running back Kennedy Brooks scampered 10 yards to the Midway 22 and an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Panthers bumped up the Tigers to the 11. Brooks scored easily from there to tie it at 7 with 9:40 left in the half.