Hunter Pedder, Brady Russell and Shane Muir wrap up a Sweet Home ball carrier during Friday night's 33-14 victory. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath High School football team finished its regular season strong Friday night at Clemens Field with a 33-14 victory over Sweet Home to keep its slim playoff hopes alive.

Fifteen of the 16 teams that qualify for the 4A playoffs have punched their ticket by finishing in the top three of their district. That leaves a 16th team to make it in through an at-large berth. The Oregon School Activities Association determined that the fourth-place team from either District 3 or District 4 — the only two districts with seven members — would be the 16th qualifier.

Based on the current rankings, Ashland appears to be in position for the berth. The Grizzlies, a 5A school that is playing down in 4A during this two-year alignment cycle, has a No. 14 OSAA ranking while Philomath is 18th. The rankings do not freeze until 10 p.m. Saturday and it’s unknown if any adjustments or circumstances would change anything.

“Hopefully we have a playoff game,” PHS coach Alex Firth said following Friday night’s victory. “We won’t know until tomorrow — we’re just going to have to wait and see how the cards fall.”

Several of the team’s seniors played pivotal roles in the victory over Sweet Home and were on the field together for the game-opening drive. During a five-play sequence, senior Kaden Muir threw two completions for 30 yards and had an 18-yard run and senior Mason Stearns moved the chains when he broke off a 7-yard run. The drive culminated with Muir’s 24-yard TD pass to sophomore CD Nuno, who sprinted down the left sideline and reached for the end zone pylon for the score.

PHS senior Kaden Muir makes a catch and would go on to score a touchdown on a play that covered 57 yards and put the Warriors up, 14-0. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“The first series was Kaden and all the seniors were out there,” Firth said. “We started running early and Kaden was having a lot of success so we just stuck with it. I mean, he can throw — it wasn’t like we weren’t going to throw the ball but we were having success with the run and there wasn’t any real need to do that.”

Following the first series, Philomath switched gears with junior Caleb Russell at quarterback. This time, the Warriors scored in two plays — the second a 57-yard strike to none other than Muir. Again, the TD occurred to the left side of the field.

Sweet Home — and other teams this season — had to deal with Philomath’s two-quarterback approach. Firth calls it the “Bobcat” — a modified version of the Wildcat formation that the Montana State Bobcats run at the collegiate level.

“It’s a lot of fun to have two quarterbacks out there and do some things that teams don’t often see,” Firth said. “That’s fun — it’s a lot of fun, actually.”

Philomath quarterback Caleb Russell threw four TD passes against the Huskies. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Early on, it appeared that Philomath might be on its way to a running clock in the second half — which occurs when a team goes up by at least 35 points. In addition to the Nuno and Muir touchdowns, Philomath took a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter when Russell found junior Hudson Raab in the corner of the end zone for a 2-yard TD. Raab stretched high to make the grab on a second-down play.

Meanwhile, the Warriors were dominating early on defense. Sweet Home went three-and-out on its first two possessions before picking up a little momentum following a fumble recovery. The Huskies picked up a first down on the series that followed thanks to a reverse that went for 14 yards but the drive stalled. A 37-yard field goal attempt missed wide right.

Down 20-0, a bizarre series of events occurred to get the Huskies back in the game. The visitors drove into the red zone on a 19-yard pass completion on third down from quarterback Jayce Miller to receiver Bode Nichols. On the next play, Philomath junior Warwick Bushnell picked off a pass attempt in the end zone and brought out the ball to around the 10 when he was hit from the side and lost his grip on the ball. Sweet Home recovered the fumble to maintain possession.

Philomath’s defense forced a fourth down at the 1 but Sweet Home’s Nathan Aker was able to punch it in to get his team on the scoreboard. A successful two-point conversion pass followed to cut the Warrior lead to 20-8.

PHS junior Warwick Bushnell looks for yards after an interception in the second quarter but moments later would lose the ball on a fumble. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Sweet Home then recovered an onside kick to get the ball right back. Two penalties hurt Philomath on the drive — pass interference on a third-and-7 and roughing the passer on fourth-and-4. The Huskies then dug into their bag of tricks. On a play from the 15, Miller took the snap from under center and pitched it to Akers, who in turn flipped the ball back to Nichols. Meanwhile, the QB Miller was sprinting to the end zone where he made a TD reception.

The Warriors blocked the extra point but Sweet Home had gotten back into the game at 20-14. That’s how the half ended.

“It was just like this cascading series of events,” Firth said. “I mean, we intercept it, we bring it out, we fumble it, they get the ball, they score, they get an onside kick, they drive, they score. I think Sherm (assistant coach Aaron Schermerhorn) said we had it for nine plays in the second quarter.”

Indeed, Philomath ran a mere nine plays and had the ball for just 2 minutes, 29 seconds over that 12-minute stretch, although the Warriors did score a touchdown on the Russell-to-Rabb completion.

PHS junior Hudson Raab catches a TD pass in the second quarter. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“Really in that second quarter, they had advantageous field position a couple of times and I think they took advantage of it,” Firth said. “And I think them not being in a situation where they could take advantage of field position in the second half worked in our favor. So I think that’s where the difference was they had to go a long field instead of a short field.

“They did a pretty good job of keep-away but yeah, it got a little too close,” he added.

Firth said the halftime conversation mainly revolved around Philomath’s need to stop hurting itself.

“The unforced errors — we had an animated talk at halftime about that — the self-inflicted wounds,” Firth said.

The players appeared to get the message.

 “It was a little too close and had little things we needed to clean up, dumb little penalties,” PHS senior Shane Muir said. “But we worked it out in the second half and it worked pretty well.”

Another senior, Hunter Pedder, said the team also readjusted its approach to stopping Sweet Home’s attack.

PHS junior Brady Russell trips up a ball carrier with senior Shane Muir about to finish him off. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“We just focused a lot more on what we knew they were going to do,” Pedder said. “But we also knew they were going to do all kinds of crazy stuff for the last game of the season.”

Sweet Home, a winless team with nothing to lose, did pull out all stops against the Warriors. In addition to the quarterback catching a touchdown, there was a play when the QB slipped the ball to a running back in between his legs. And on the first two possessions of the third quarter, Sweet Home went for it on fourth down in its own territory.

Philomath made the stop on both of those plays — Pedder and company getting a tackle on the first attempt and Brady Russell and company teaming up on the second one.

Pedder, who joined the Warriors this season from Alsea, had a fumble recovery in addition to the key stop on fourth down.

“I came from a 6-man school — it’s a lot different,” Pedder said.

Philomath scored twice in the third quarter to put the game away. On a drive that took 4:05 off the clock, Nuno made an impressive over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. 

Later after Pedder’s fumble recovery, Philomath scored again on a 13-yard strike from Russell to Bushnell. Russell completed 14 of 21 passes for 175 yards and four touchdowns.

“We caught some good balls — Warwick caught a nice ball on a slant and CD had some nice catches,” Firth said. “The receivers played well and I thought the run game worked when we needed it to work.”

Philomath sophomore CD Nuno heads down the left sideline on his way to a 24-yard touchdown. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Muir rushed 12 times for 96 yards — an average of 8 yards per carry. Nuno caught seven balls for 98 yards and Muir had three receptions for 74 yards.

Philomath’s interior athletes had one of its top performances of the season. Sweet Home was just 2 for 11 on third down in the game and 2 for 6 on fourth down — 0 for 4 in the second half.

“The D-line played really well, a lot of penetration, flying up the middle,” Firth said. “They had the big No. 68 (Akers) at tailback and that kid’s a load but I thought they played really well meeting them in the backfield. I think a couple of times, Shane could’ve taken the handoff he was back there so quickly. And I think the linebackers behind them were able to free run and make tackles. But the D-line stepping up was a huge deal for us defensively.”

Shane Muir returned to the program for his final season after skipping football his junior year.

“I played football since the first grade with these guys and there’s nothing more that I’d rather do than play my senior year with them,” he said.

Against the Huskies, he was one of the most visible players on the field.

“We all worked hard, especially the D linemen,” he said. “We all worked our butts off and it was a blast.”

Kallen Albin, Jacob Demers, Hayden Fuller, Jared Gerding, Kaden Muir, Shane Muir, Pedder and Mason Stearns were recognized before kickoff as part of Senior Night activities.

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.