FOOTBALL: A-J hands Panthers their third straight loss

Much like in their loss at Sparta in week four, Pinckneyville was on the wrong end of two big plays against Anna-Jonesboro in week six that ended up leading to a loss for the Panthers.

The Wildcats used a 64-yard touchdown pass to get a score just before halftime and a monster kick-return down the PCHS 12-yard line that led to another score in the fourth quarter to send the Panthers to their third straight loss, 20-14 at 'The Pit' in Anna.

Now at 3-3 overall, the Panthers will likely need to win out to join the IHSA playoffs, a stretch of three games that includes conference powers Carterville (6-0) and Nashville (5-1).

"I've got to find a way to get us to play a little bit better early in the game," said Pinckneyville head coach Todd Thomas. "I think we've come out a little bit flat here the last three weeks, and it's my job to get that done. We've yelled and screamed and hollered, we've been nice, we've tried a lot of different things. We've got to figure it out."

The Panthers held the lead twice, and had their chances late in the game to push ahead for the win.

Caulden Lazenby picked off A-J quarterback Zane DeWitt and returned it to the Pinckneyville 47-yard line on the Wildcats' first drive, setting up an 11-play touchdown drive capped off by Adam Banach's 10-yard run up the middle into the end zone.

Immediately after that, Anna-Jonesboro started at midfield after a nice kick return, then later converted on a fourth-and-three from the PCHS 11-yard line on a pass from DeWitt to Taylor Anderson to tie the game at 7-7 with 9:06 to go until the half.

Fast-forwarding to 2:21 to go in the second quarter, A-J took over on their own 36-yard line and on second-and-ten, DeWitt fired it deep to Anderson again. The wideout hauled in the pass for a 64-yard touchdown with 2:06 on the clock for the first of two huge plays that would haunt the Panthers.

"The score before the half gave them a lot of momentum going in," said Thomas.

Pinckneyville's defense would slow that momentum in the third quarter, when neither team scored despite trips to the red zone.

Early in the fourth, the Panthers completed their best drive of the game, an 83-yard trek that ended with a touchdown pass from Clayton Houghland to Jakeb Jackson from 19 yards out to tie the game at 14-14 with 11:04 to play.

"(Houghland) had a good game throwing the ball," Thomas said. "He's just a junior, it's his first year as a varsity quarterback. He's coming along, we've just got to keep working."

But that's when disaster struck again for the Panthers. Alec Gold returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to Pinckneyville's 12-yard line and DeWitt finished off the short field with a 6-yard run for six points and a 20-14 lead. Lazenby blocked the extra point for PCHS, meaning a touchdown and an extra point would have put the Panthers back on top.

Pinckneyville's best opportunity to score from that point on came after a Tristan Fisher interception set the Panthers up at the A-J 46 with 8:49 remaining. The Panthers picked up a first down at the Wildcats' 18-yard line, but two short run plays and two incompletions later, the drive ended with no points.

DeWitt was able to handle it from there, running out the game clock with his legs.

"We didn't tackle (DeWitt) early, we didn't tackle him late, and that was a big difference," Thomas said. "They got the kickoff return and got the momentum back, but I thought we kept fighting and kept scratching and clawing. It just wasn't enough, we didn't make the plays when we needed them and they did."

Banach led the Panthers in rushing yards with 64 on 11 carries. Trent Hicks (11 carries, 47 yards), Houghland (2-12), Alex Howard (3-11), Lazenby (6-9) and Dalton Peradotto (2-3) also contributed to Pinckneyville's 145 net yards on the ground.

Houghland finished 7-for-20 throwing the ball for 139 yards, connecting with Gabe Yearian (4 catches, 88 yards), Fisher (2-32) and Jackson (1-19).

DeWitt rushed for 142 yards on 31 attempts and threw for 132 yards on 9-for-16 passing.

Pinckneyville (3-3, 0-3) will continue the hunt for their first conference victory in week seven when they host Nashville.