Philomath's defense held Junction City to 58 total yards in the first half but the Tigers rallied in the second half to get the win, 20-17, Friday night. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

In the moments following Philomath High’s 20-17 loss to unbeaten Junction City at Clemens Field Friday night, the players could not help but react with frustration. The looks on their faces told the story as they continue to search for that key victory to elevate the program to a level not seen in years.

“We’re waiting for that kick-the-door down game and we were right there,” PHS coach Alex Firth said after a postgame talk with his players. “We’re getting incrementally closer and I think it bodes well. We’ve just got to deal with the emotions of losing a close football game like that.”

This loss hurt with Philomath controlling the first half and leading by double digits at halftime before the visitors stormed back with a strong, ball-control, clock-killing performance in the second half.

“We just weren’t as consistent in the second half as we were in the first half,” Firth said. “I’ll take the blame for it but part of it maybe was I wasn’t dialing up the right plays or whatever. I don’t know that they did a lot of adjustments, we just didn’t connect on some plays when there were plays to be made.”

To set the stage, Junction City has been attracting attention from around 4A with a strong start this season. The Tigers were unranked in the OSAAtoday coaches preseason poll but debuted this week at No. 5 following decided wins over Elmira, Crook County and Stayton. In the early OSAA power rankings, Junction City is No. 2 behind Henley.

Firth knew his Warriors had taken one of the top teams in the state to the wire and had opportunities to win the game. He hopes his players can take positives from the experience moving forward as they prepare for a game this coming Thursday at Stayton.

“I told them ‘you’ve got 24 hours to process this’ and on Monday they’ve got to come back ready to work,” Firth said. “We’ve got to be dialed in and focused next Thursday and we’ve got to play at the same level that we played in the first half the remainder of the year to be successful.”

Philomath sophomore receiver CD Nuno picks up yardage. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Philomath had a solid drive to open the game with the offense picking up three first downs and getting inside the 10. A key moment in the series occurred on third-and-9 when junior quarterback Caleb Russell targeted sophomore receiver CD Nuno on a pass play. Junction City was flagged for pass interference to move the chains.

The Warriors ultimately weren’t able to reach the end zone, however. On first-and-goal and the 7, Junction City junior Josh Berry sacked Russell back at the 19. Two incomplete passes followed and the Warriors settled for a 36-yard field goal by junior Hudson Raab for a 3-0 lead.

On Junction City’s next drive, Philomath’s defense held to a three-and-out, which included a tackle for a loss when juniors Lucas Bourgeois and Brady Russell stopped senior Cooper Rothenberger on a QB keeper.

Field position, run defense and a turnover helped set up Philomath’s first TD drive of the game.

On a three-and-out inside the PHS 20 midway through the first quarter, senior Kaden Muir boomed a 53-yard punt to flip the field.

The Tigers picked up a first down — their first of the game — but got into a second-and-11 situation when Philomath sophomore Rocco De La Rosa and senior Shane Muir tackled Rothenberger for a loss. Following a delay of game penalty and an 11-yard run to set up a third-and-5, Junction City’s snap bounced off a running back and Raab fell on it to give the Warriors possession at the Tigers’ 43.

Philomath junior Hudson Raab scores on a 34-yard pass early in the second quarter. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Three plays later, Caleb Russell tossed a short out pass to Raab, who found open field and sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown that covered 34 yards.

Philomath had a 10-0 lead in the opening seconds of the second quarter.

Junction City was able to answer, however, after beginning its next drive with exceptional field position. The Tigers had a 25-yard return on the kickoff and then added on 15 more when Philomath was flagged.

The drive started with Kaden Muir sprinting past blockers to make a tackle in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. But Junction City later converted on a fourth-and-5 at the 31, the Warriors were hit with a 10-yard penalty and Rothenberger completed a 13-yard pass to senior Tylen Franks to get the ball inside the 10. On fourth-and-goal from the 4, Rothenberger pitched the ball to Franks, who ran it in for the TD.

Philomath maintained a two-score lead when Junction City’s extra point kick missed.

After the two teams traded possessions, Philomath struck for its second touchdown on a crazy series of events that included two touchdowns called back on penalties. On second-and-10, Russell and Bushnell connected on a 46-yard play to the end zone but it was wiped out by a holding penalty. On the next play, Russell again hit Bushnell on a pass play that covered 54 yards to paydirt. But PHS was flagged for offensive pass interference.

Philomath senior Kaden Muir catches a TD pass in the second quarter with Junction City junior Josh Berry in his face. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Facing second-and-33, Kaden Muir picked up 18 yards on a pass from Russell. Then on third-and-15, Russell hit Bushnell on a 40-yard reception down to the 11. From there, Russell found Muir in the end zone, the PHS back catching the ball even with a Junction City defender in his face.

The score came with just 1:30 left in the first half and Raab’s second extra point of the evening gave the Warriors a 17-6 lead.

Junction City fumbled the ball away for the second time in the first half on its next possession. Philomath’s Nuno recovered and the Warriors had a short field at the 36 with 1:07 left to do something. But the Warriors stumbled by starting the drive with false start and delay of game penalties and in a moment of confusion spiked the ball on third down. A fourth down pass fell incomplete.

Junction City ran a few plays as the first half ended with the Warriors in a good position at 17-6. Philomath’s defense had stuffed the Tigers to just 58 total yards and was seeing success on third down with Junction City converting just 1 of 9. On offense, the Warriors had 171 yards with 159 of those through the air on 14-of-25 passing.

The game’s flow was challenged in the first half with the two teams combined flagged 13 times for 125 yards.

Philomath sophomore Lake Mulberry pressures Junction City senior quarterback Cooper Rothenberger. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Philomath opened the second half threatening to possibly put the game away with a long touchdown drive. Bushnell returned the kickoff 17 yards to the 32 and the Warriors picked up three first downs to get down to the 23.

Kaden Muir carried the ball for gains of four and five yards to set up a third-and-1 but then PHS was penalized for a false start. Facing third-and-6, Russell and Bushnell connected on a 3-yard gain and on fourth-and-3, a pass attempted in Bushnell’s direction was off the mark amid pressure.

“If we get one more score there in the second half, I think it totally flips the game, especially on that first drive,” Firth said.

The game’s momentum shifted heavily in Junction City’s favor over the next two possessions. The Tigers started running QB-designed runs right at the PHS defense and were finding success. Then on a second-and-1 from its own 48, Franks broke free on a long TD run. On Philomath’s ensuing possession, Junction City’s Levi Walker twice had sacks to force a three-and-out.

Philomath opened the fourth quarter with back-to-back defensive plays to stop a Junction City drive. Pass coverage from senior Mason Stearns on third down and a tackle for loss by De La Rosa on fourth down gave the Warriors possession.

But Philomath couldn’t move the ball on a three-and-out, a series that included two more penalties and took just 58 seconds off the clock.

Philomath junior Warwick Bushnell had 100 yards in receptions vs. the Tigers. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Junction City then put together a seven-play, 70-yard drive — all on running plays — that ended with a 9-yard TD run by senior Grant Barnes. The extra point missed to keep the Warriors to within three points of the lead at 20-17 — important considering Raab’s kicking talent.

As it turned out, Philomath only had one more chance with the ball and it was a three-and-out. Junction City got the ball with 6:56 remaining and maintained possession the rest of the way with nothing but running plays.

“They started bringing pressure,” Firth said about the second half. “It wasn’t much different from the first half … we were just inconsistent in the passing game. We’ve got to be consistent, we’ve got to throw those short routes so we can break into longer routes and we just misfired a little bit.”

Philomath’s offense had the ball for only 1:59 of clock time in the fourth quarter. For the game, Junction City had an overwhelming advantage for time of possession at 29:43 to 18:17.

“They played a little keep-away on offense, milked the clock, killed the clock,” Firth said.

Firth knew Junction City’s defense strength could be found on the line and linebackers.

“We knew running the ball was going to be hard against them and we were going to have to win the game throwing it,” Firth said. “We just didn’t connect on some passes in the second half that I thought were there and really kind of flipped the game.”

Philomath junior Caleb Russell threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

The final stat sheet showed Junction City (4-0 overall, 2-0 league) had picked up 274 of its 295 yards on the ground. Franks had 99 yards on 11 carries and Rothenberger ended up with 95 yards on 23 carries.

For Philomath, the Warriors were limited to 47 yards in the second half, finishing the game with 218. Russell completed 21 of 38 passes for 212 yards. Bushnell had eight catches for 100 yards and four other players had multiple receptions — Nuno (four for 30 yards), Raab (three for 41), Muir (three for 29) and junior Logan Matthews (two for 10).

On defense, Junction City had four sacks for 34 yards in losses. For the Warriors, the team didn’t record any sacks but had several tackles for losses along with two fumble recoveries.

Philomath (2-2, 1-1) plays at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stayton.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.