The Brainerd Panthers got off to a slow start and struggled in the very end, but between those two sluggish periods they proved to be pretty dang good.
Brainerd put up 20 points in a five-minute span just before halftime Friday night and disposed of crosstown rival Howard 33-12 in a key District 6-AA bout for the Panthers.
"It was a must win for us," Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson said. "I felt like we got after them for awhile and then we had our lulls. I don't think we can look at the scoreboard and be satisfied with that. We knew it was going to be a tough game.
"It's Brainerd-Howard and that's what all these fans came out to see. It didn't matter what the records were."
Despite their now 0-5 start, the Hustlin' Tigers started well, controlling the ball for all but four minutes of the first period. Howard even took advantage of the inspired play to lead 6-0 on a fourth-down TD toss from Terrance Brooks to Jermichael Hardy from the 9 after Brainerd (3-3, 2-1) muffed a punt inside its own 15.
Punts seemed to be special order of the night for adventure. Demetrius Kitchens blocked and recovered a Howard punt at the 3, and another bad snap forced Howard to run from the end zone before fumbling on the 1. Those plays set up two of Brainerd's quick scores.
The Panthers pulled into a tie at 6 on a 97-yard, all-running 12-play drive with Albert Wiley crashing over from the 3 with 5:56 left in the first half. The blocked punt set up Brainerd's next score with Malek Rooks scoring from the 2 and Wiley adding the conversion run for a 14-6 lead. And just before the break, Howard was forced to punt out of its end zone and the bad snap set up Sam Caffey's 1-yard score for a 20-6 lead.
The Panthers held Howard to 2 total yards of offense in the initial half and continued to stay after the Tigers until Howard showed its gut and grit in the final period. By that time, though, Rooks had added a 51-yard scoring run and Caffey scored from 2 yards away for a 33-6 margin.
It seemed nothing the Tigers could do turned out right. An interception by Howard was fumbled back to the Panthers; a fumble by Brainerd at the goal line popped right back up to the quarterback who waltzed in for a score; and even when the Tigers recovered a fumble deep in Brainerd territory, an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty cost them 15 valuable yards.
"Howard played like I expected they would. They have a good team and had some bad things happen to them, but they played hard to the very end," Jackson said.
Wiley led Brainerd with his 12 carries for 102 yards, and Rooks added nine carries for 72 yards. Chris Davis led the Panthers defense with two sacks. He had an 68-yard TD interception return nullified by penalty.