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Big third quarter keeps Vandals in the game, fourth quarter turnovers keep them from winning

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By Jonathan Stark

As the Vandalia High School football team rode into Litchfield on Friday afternoon, the Vandals were greeted with sign along the streets and in front lawns reading “Go Panthers” and “Beat the Vandals.” Once inside Litchfield’s stadium, the crowd was just as enthusiastic. The stands were packed and fans lined the outside of the fence, standing on cars to watch the game. The Panthers were celebrating homecoming on Friday, and the Vandals gave Litchfield a scare on one of its biggest home games of the year.

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Vandalia entered the game at 2-2, without back-to-back wins or losses. The Panthers were 2-1 and undefeated at home. Vandalia held a four-game win streak over Litchfield, but the two teams' histories go back further then that. Litchfield is the only team that Vandalia has played every year since the school reinstated varsity football in 1950. Litchfield’s 30-21 win over Vandalia on Friday evened the series at 30-30.

The Panthers and their spread offense started the game by moving down to Vandalia’s 8-yard line in just five plays. Vandalia’s defense, which has shown inexperience at times, was able to hold on fourth-and-goal from the three, forcing a turnover on downs.

Litchfield moved the ball well into Vandalia territory on its second drive, but two sacks by the Vandals' defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone, but not off the scoreboard. Litchfield took a 3-0 lead on a 34-yard field goal.

The Vandals didn’t get on the board until the opening minutes of the second quarter. Marty Johnson was able to run the ball down to the 1-yard line and Drew Stewart ran it in two plays later, giving Vandalia a 6-3 lead. The PAT was missed, wide right.

Litchfield went on a 14-0 run in the last five minutes to take a 17-6 lead at the half. The Panthers scored on a 66-yard touchdown drive to go up 10-6. On the Vandals’ ensuing drive, Litchfield intercepted a pass and would score with less than 10 seconds remaining in the half to go up by 11.

The Vandals' offense started the third quarter relying heavily on its run game. They ran the ball seven straight times before opening up the pass game on a 24-yard pass to Daniel Bell to get into Litchfield territory on the 30. Vandalia moved the ball down to the 1-yard line with another series of run plays, and on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Drew Stewart rumbled in for the score. Johnson found Bunker on a 2-point conversion and Vandalia trailed, 17-14, seven minutes into the third quarter.

Two plays into the Panthers' first drive of the third quarter, Vandalia’s defense was able to force and recover a fumble at Litchfield’s 31-yard line. Once again utilizing the run game, Vandalia moved the ball the final 31 yards, and Tyler Vosholler ran for his first score of the season. The point-after attempt gave Vandalia a 21-17 lead, with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter.

A combination of miscues on defense and two turnovers by Vandalia, and several big plays by Litchfield, ended up costing Vandalia in the fourth quarter.

In the opening minutes of the final quarter, Johnson was intercepted for the second time.

“We made some mistakes and turned the ball over, but we got guys trying to make plays out there,” Stout said. “I can’t fault our kids or anything they did tonight”

Johnson’s pass was low across the middle and deflected off the top of a lineman’s helmet. The Panthers came down with the ball. Litchfield would retake the lead on a 1-yard touchdown run. The PAT put them up 24-21 with 7:34 left in the game.

“They did a job good putting a drive together, so you have to give them credit,” Stout said.

After the kickoff, Vandalia needed only to drive downfield and score at least a field goal  to tie the game.

The Vandals were blessed with good field position at the 35 after the kickoff went out-of-bounds. They were able to pick up a first down and were almost into Litchfield territory when Johnson was intercepted for the third time. The Panthers returned the pick well into Vandalia territory and would go up 30-21 on a 23-yard touchdown scramble.

Vandalia could not close the nine-point gap in the final three minutes.

“I can’t fault our kids, we got guys out there playing their guts out,” Stout said. The kids gave a super effort all four quarters.”

Johnson 6-for-19 for 111 yards and three interceptions. This was his fourth consecutive game with more than 100 yards through the air.

Bunker had 112 yards on the ground and 26 through the air. Bell had 85 yards on eight catches.

Stewart had 46 rushing yards and two scores. Vosholler had 43 yards and a score.

Will Cowger and Bunker each had 10 tackles.

Vandalia moves to 2-3 on the season and are on the road again Friday against Hillsboro.

Hillsboro is 3-2 this season and averaging 28 points a game, while their defense holds opponents to just 18 points a game.

Kickoff is Friday at 7 p.m., in Hillsboro.