By Wil Crews

A playmaking defense and dedication to the run game helped the Smiths Station Panthers close out their season with a narrow 27–20 win against the Stanhope Elmore Mustangs.

All year, the Panthers have fallen behind early in games. And although they always battled for the full 60 minutes, the early deficits were often too much to overcome. The game on Friday night started in similar fashion, but five Stanhope turnovers left the Mustangs vulnerable and the Smiths offense punished their carelessness.

Stanhope’s Antonio Trone opened the night’s scoring with a four-yard rushing touchdown with just over five minutes left in the first quarter. It looked like an all-too-familiar start to a Panther game, but, this time, Smiths would respond quickly to prevent the game from getting out of hand.

Jordan Jones — who is committed to Georgia State as a linebacker — switched to offense on the next drive to add some much needed power to the Smiths rushing attack. Jones finished the Panther’s first drive with a short rushing touchdown. Both teams missed their PAT’s, and the game was deadlocked at 6–6.

Going forward, Smiths and Stanhope would trade interceptions, but the Mustangs were the next to score on a deep touchdown pass halfway through the second quarter. A few moments later, Smiths’ Devyn Pearman got in on the Panther’s rushing bombardment. The wide receiver broke a 50-plus-yard run down the Mustangs sideline before being taken down at the one-yard line. Quarterback Corey Minton then did what he has done so often this season. On the next play, Minton burrowed behind his offensive line on a quarterback sneak, found pay-dirt and tied the game at 13.

With under a minute left in the half, Smiths were gifted one more possession after a quick Stanhope possession and punt. The Panthers began in field goal range at the Stanhope 33-yard line. After one first down, the Smiths offense stalled at the 21-yard line. On the ensuing third down, Minton dropped back and found a Panther wide receiver for an emphatic, momentum-swinging score just before the halftime break. Smiths led 19–13 after a failed two-point conversion and the two teams went into the locker room with a feeling that it was anyone’s ballgame.

The second half would make it clear that Smiths was the better team.The defense began the third quarter by forcing and recovering a fumble on Stanhope’s side of the field. The offense capitalized with another short rushing score from Jones. This time, the Panther’s two-point try was successful and the 27–13 lead was enough to see out the game. The rest of Stanhope’s possession would go: turnover on downs, punt, turnover on downs, touchdown, fumble. The Mustangs made it 27–20 with just over a minute left in the game but the Panther offense would take a knee on the last possession to run out the clock.

The Smiths defense was opportunistic all game and the five forced turnovers were enough to subdue the Mustangs. On offense, Minton finished with 40 yards passing and one touchdown through the air; Jones carried the ball just four times but plunged into the end zone for two powerful touchdown runs; and Cianna Williams caught the 21-yard, end-of-half touchdown with his only catch of the game.

According to the website, Smiths averaged 16.2 points per game and allowed 25.5 points per game for the 2020 season. The team would want to see those numbers flipped but the panthers ultimately improved on their 2–8 record from 2019.

The win rounds out this season’s record 4-6. It was a challenging season for Smiths to say the least. The Panthers failed to qualify for a 6A playoff spot, but it’s always good to end on a high note — the seniors went out with a win. That’s about all you could ask for in this crazy, COVID-crippled season. Until next year.