Orange High School’s Panthers would have been better off last week if they could have snuck up on Southern in the state football playoffs. But they had no such luck.
They had given Southern too good a game just a few weeks before for the Spartans to take the Panthers lightly. Orange came into the third-round playoff game with the most wins ever by an Orange team, topping the 11-3 team that made it last year’s state semifinals.
“We knew that we’d face some adversity in this game, this being the second time we played them,” Southern quarterback Kendall Hinton said Friday. “We had a really good talk about that in the locker room, about how we’d have to come out prepared for them.”
Orange lost 55-41 at Southern the first time they met, a game on Nov. 8 that decided the big-8 Conference championship in the Spartans’ favor.
Last Friday, the Panthers did everything they could to adjust to Southern’s speed. They changed defensive looks. They stunted along the front line. They rotated defensive backs on N.C. State recruit Maurice Trowell at his wideout position.
Orange (12-2) succeeded in holding down (12-2) Southern’s scoring. The Spartans’ 31-24 margin Friday marked the fewest points they’ve scored in any win this year.
“They scored 55 the first time we played them, and we held them to 24 points fewer this time,” Orange head coach Pat Moser said. “We did better defensively, but they did better defensively against us, too.”
Cold was a factor in blunting both teams’ attack as well. With temperatures dipping into the 20s, the best job inside the stadium was being the trainer who held game balls under a jet heater to keep them warm.
As it was, the frigid air was a factor, if for no other reason than it affected everyone’s hands.
Quarterbacks and running backs had trouble gripping the rock hard ball. Receivers had difficulty handling sharp passes hitting them in the chest. Defenders had trouble holding onto runners they had in their grasp.
“The weather was definitely a factor,” Southern head coach Adrian Jones said. “But it doesn’t matter; you have to keep playing.
“It’s like I told my team: if something bad happens, keep playing; if something good happens keep playing.”
That advice proved prescient after Orange quarterback Garrett Cloer was knocked out of the game midway though the fourth quarter. With Orange down 24-17, Cloer had the Panthers driving past midfield when he scrambled out of the pocket and was sandwiched between multiple defenders. The first two Spartans stood him up and, without a whistle stopping them, two more defenders hammered him to the ground in front of the Southern bench.
“He was just trying to make something happen,” Moser said. “He took a big shot.”
Cloer walked shakily across the field and, just short of the Orange sideline, went down on one knee, where he stayed for about a minute as trainers rushed to his side. After their version of giving him a standing eight-count, the junior quarterback was guided to a seat.
Sophomore linebacker Bryse Wilson, Cloer’s OHS baseball teammate in the spring and his understudy at quarterback in the fall, was inserted on offense. Wilson’s first pass attempt was picked off by Marvin Tillman near the 30 and returned 70 yards for a touchdown.
“Everyone was celebrating on the sideline, and I had to tell them to calm down. ‘Celebrate after the clock goes to zero,’” Jones said.
Sure enough, Wilson rallied the Panthers for a final touchdown, an 18-yard strike to Artrell Stewart with 28.6 seconds left. Orange’s Brad Barbee then executed a good onside kick, which hopped over the first Southern Durham receivers, but the Spartans were able to smother the ball.
“That’s just a good team,” Moser said of Southern. “If the stars lined up just right one night, we could beat them, but they’d have to make a mistake or two.
“I look for them to be tough the rest of the way. They might just win it all.”