Philomath junior Kaden Muir intercepts a pass and returns it 47 yards to the end zone to begin a first-quarter scoring barrage for the Warriors. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath High’s football team really needed a spark Friday night in the team’s league opener against Cottage Grove.

The Warriors entered the contest at Clemens Field after back-to-back losses to open the season. A victory over the visiting Lions could provide a needed confidence boost while players enjoy a fresh start in Special District 3 play.

The team’s first two possessions didn’t do much with just seven yards and no first downs on seven plays. Philomath had to punt the ball away on its game-opening series and then turned the ball over on downs to end its second shot at running the offense.

Yeah, the Warriors could use a spark.

Junior Kaden Muir turned out to be the answer.

Cottage Grove had just set up shop near midfield to begin its second possession with great field position. Lions quarterback Brayden Crump took the snap and attempted a screen pass to his left. Muir stepped in front of the intended receiver, intercepted the pass and sprinted 47 yards untouched to the end zone.

The team erupted on the field and on the sidelines. A weight had been lifted and by the end of the first quarter, the Warriors were leading 27-0. The margin was up to 40-0 by halftime and a safety in the second half accounted for the final score of 42-0.

Ty May scores a touchdown on a fumble return. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“It helps us get a little energy going,” Muir said of the win. “Coming off a couple of losses hurt but this gets us going as we get into the league now.”

The pick-6 was Muir’s first at the high school level — he believes he had one back in middle school.

“It’s getting more comfortable now and our players are producing,” Muir said about Philomath’s attack. “We’re in a good place.”

For the game, Muir had a hand in three touchdowns with a 16-yard run to paydirt later in the first quarter and a 5-yard pass to senior Ty May early in the second quarter.

“He’s really ball smart on defense — I mean, he picked off that screen pass for a touchdown,” PHS coach Alex Firth said. “He does really well on offense, reads the ball well. He’s really in control of the game and that’s what we expect — he’s one of our captains. He’s a real cerebral kid and just makes plays … always seems to be in the right spot.”

Firth wasn’t kidding with Muir — he was also involved in the team’s third touchdown. On the play, Cottage Grove’s Crump got sacked and lost the ball when Muir stripped it out of his hands. May was in position for a scoop-and-score from seven yards out and the Warriors led 20-0 with 4:55 remaining in the opening quarter.

PHS senior Chad Russell sacks Cottage Grove quarterback Brayden Crump. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath increased its lead to 27-0 a few minutes later on an 11-yard TD run by senior Ty Olson. The Warriors began the possession after junior Mason Stearns had an interception to end Cottage Grove’s previous drive.

In the second quarter, Muir and May connected on that short TD pass and senior David Griffith found the end zone from 11 yards out for a 40-0 halftime lead. Muir had converted on four of six PATs.

With a running clock in the second half, Philomath added two more points on a safety when Olson tackled Cottage Grove’s Karson Willmarth in the end zone.

The dominating victory helped erase some of the hurt from Philomath’s losses this season to Crook County and Rex Putnam.

“I think it validates what we’ve been doing … continuing to work at what we do and it just got better and things started clicking and it just carried from there,” Firth said. “It kinda gives them a little boost going into Junction City and gives them confidence in what we do.”

Philomath will head to Junction City on Sept. 23 for another Special District 3 matchup. The Tigers will enter the game with a 2-1 record — falling on Friday night to Stayton, 35-33.

Philomath senior Ty Olson tackles Cottage Grove’s Karson Willmarth in the end zone for a safety. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

In the game against Cottage Grove, there certainly weren’t any dazzling offensive fireworks with Philomath finishing with 143 total yards. The Warrior defense, meanwhile, held Cottage Grove to minus-2 yards of total offense.

“Early on, defense has been the strength of the team but we’re getting better offensively,” Firth said. “I’m really proud of the team.”

The statistical summary really is fascinating with Cottage Grove finishing with minus-45 yards on the ground and just one first down. Even though Philomath scored 42 points, the Warriors ended up with only 80 yards rushing and 63 yards passing while moving the chains 10 times.

Philomath got all players that suited up into the game, Firth said.

In addition to the Muir and Stearns interceptions, sophomore Colton Hruska had a pick and a nice return down the right sideline in the fourth quarter.

“We were really trying to shuffle who was in, who was out,” Firth said. “We have a JV game on Monday and so we were making sure they have quarters to play … so it was kind of a balancing act there at the end to get guys in and out. But I think we’ve got everybody in and they can play on Monday.”

Philomath’s first JV game this season is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday at Cottage Grove.

Freshman CD Nuno picks up yardage on a first-half reception. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Cottage Grove’s football program has fallen upon hard times in recent years. The Lions had a winning record and reached the state playoffs in 2018 but since then have lost 19 of 20 games. The team fielded only a junior varsity team during the 2020-21 pandemic season with one of its losses coming to Philomath, 42-0.

In addition, this fall is off to a rough start for Cottage Grove with three straight losses — all shutouts. The Lions had an opportunity to score on the last play of the game against Philomath with a receiver breaking free of coverage and wide open. But the receiver wasn’t able to make the catch and the game ended.

Philomath’s 80 yards rushing included Griffith’s 57 yards on six carries. Muir, sophomore Caleb Russell and freshman John Pickett all saw action at quarterback and were a combined 6 of 14 for 63 yards. Six different Warriors had a catch in the game.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

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.