At times last night, Pickerington North played as if it never had been in a playoff game.
The game included a dropped pass in the end zone, five fumbled snaps from center, a blocked field-goal attempt, a blocked extra point and seven penalties against Fairfield.
In the end, though, the Panthers’ experience from a run to the Division I state semifinals in 2012 might have pushed them through the first round.
Zeph Miller ran for a 25-yard touchdown and connected with Chris McDowell for a 74-yard touchdown pass, and the defense intercepted five passes to give Pickerington North a 20-10 victory before a near-capacity crowd on a cold, blustery night.
The Panthers (10-1) will face Hilliard Davidson (11-0) in the second round at a site to be determined.
“I really believe we were very physical throughout the game, but we were our own worst enemy,” coach Tom Phillips said. “We kept turning over the ball. Give credit to Fairfield. But we were injuring ourselves with ball security. We didn’t take advantage of the field (position).”
No one was more off-kilter than Miller, the senior quarterback who has given the team a jet-age look with his arm and legs. He sat out last week’s regular-season finale, a loss to Grove City, because of the flu.
But with Fairfield (9-2) leading 10-9 and giving up yardage stubbornly, Miller and McDowell came up big.
On second-and-4 with a strong wind at his back, Miller planted his right foot and threw a 40-yard spiral down the middle of the field to McDowell.
McDowell, who is 6-foot-3, caught the ball in stride over a defensive back and ran untouched for a 74-yard touchdown with 58.8 seconds left in the third quarter. Miller ran for a two-point conversion out of a spread formation to give North a 17-10 lead.
“You have to trust in your team,” McDowell said. “I had to make a move and make somebody miss. We’ve run that play before with the tight end. It was open. I had the mindset to make a play.”
The defense was the story of the night, throwing off Fairfield quarterbacks Ryan Nuss and Hunter Krause. Nuss was 6 of 15 for 105 yards and Krause 7 of 18 for 54 yards. The running game netted 33 yards on 19 carries.
Tony Welch had two interceptions and Justin Childers, Trezden Johnson and Romaeo Whitlow one each.
“The coaches set us up to make plays,” Welch said. “I could watch their whole offense. I definitely think we were more physical than they were. Fairfield does have great athletes, but we came in thinking that we could hit harder.”
A 40-yard interception return by Whitlow set up a 25-yard field goal by Karch Holland with 5:38 remaining to give the Panthers a 20-10 lead.
“I just knew I had to make a play for my team,” Whitlow said. “We had to get the ball back.” We studied all their pass routes and they came right to us. The defense had to stay strong.