Panthers silence in battle of ranked teams
The battle for the Middle Border Conference football lead last Friday was decided because Osceola wouldn't let St. Croix Central into the end zone.
In a game between the two top-ranked Division 4 teams in Wisconsin, Osceola won out with a supreme defensive effort, defeating Central 17-0 on the Chieftains' home turf. Osceola has now won 17 straight MBC games.
Osceola now stands alone at the top of the MBC with a 5-0 record. St. Croix Central and New Richmond are now tied for second place with 4-1 records. The Panthers must now hope that New Richmond is able to knock off Osceola when they meet on the final night of the regular season.
The first half of Friday's game was an incredible defensive battle. The first half became a battle of the punters as the teams vied for field position. A punt return ended up being the turning point of the game.
Central's Derek Myer launched a massive punt which Osceola's Jack Feldt muffed inside the Osceola 15. When Feldt gathered the ball, he cut crossfield to his right, picking up a wave of blocks. He was able to turn upfield and outrace the Panther defenders for an 88-yard touchdown return with 35 seconds remaining in the first half.
The Panthers' best threat of the half came after that touchdown. Runs of 37 and 30 yards from Ryan Larson got the Panthers inside the Osceola 10. But the Panthers' final play of the half, a pass to the goal line, was broken up.
At halftime, the Osceola coaches decided to get the ball to Feldt. He had tough bursts up the middle to gain 17, then 15 yards on the opening drive of the second half. The coaches called Feldt's number again and he burst through the heart of the Panther defense for a 34-yard touchdown.
After Central's next possession was stopped, the Chieftains drove into Central territory. Osceola quarterback Brett Carlson also is the team's middle linebacker and kicker. He added the final points of the game on a 26-yard field goal.
Central had its best threat of scoring in the final minutes of the game, sparked by a 31-yard pass from Collin Nelson to Austin Kopacz. But the drive was stopped at the Osceola 2-yard line and the Chieftains were able to run out the clock.
There was team-wide frustration for the Panthers. The offense logged 228 yards, but most of that came in two possessions.
"You've got to make big plays in a big game and we didn't make any," said Central coach Tony DiSalvo. "Losing is never a good thing, but we need to learn from our losses."
This game was a clash between the WIAA Division 4 state championship programs from the past two years and DiSalvo used last season to remind his team and fans that hope isn't lost.
"At this time last season we were 4-3 and were scratching to get into the playoffs," he said in a remindful tone.
The offense clearly can perform better. There were several times when Nelson and fullback Ryan Larson couldn't decide who was taking the ball on handoffs. And all six of the Panthers' pass attempts were deep throws. Short passes were a staple of the Panthers last season. DiSalvo said there hasn't been much reason to practice the passing game this season because the Panthers have been comfortably ahead in most of their games.
The Panthers already have their ticket punched for the playoffs, but there is still plenty of meaning in their final two regular season games. The Panthers will play their final home game of the regular season on Friday in their 2017 Homecoming game against Prescott. Prescott is a team trying to reach the playoffs.
"They'll be hungry. They've got to win a couple games to get in the playoffs," DiSalvo warned.