By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
MIFFLINBURG -- Blake Rankin admitted he thought about last year's District 4 Class AA first-round game, a disheartening one-point loss at Lewisburg.
It especially came up when host Mifflinburg forced a three-and-out to open Friday's District 4 Class AA quarterfinal, with Wildcats' star Connor Pierce nearly picking him off in Panther territory.
"It was definitely on my mind because we go right by Lewisburg to get here," the Bloomsburg senior quarterback said.
"It was on our mind, but we were determined to come out here and play the way we were capable of playing," he added.
Rankin and the Panthers made that first series ancient history as the visitors scored on their next four possessions and added a fumble recovery touchdown in the end zone by Mark Drumm for good measure. Despite some second-half outbursts by Mifflinburg, Bloomsburg advanced with a 48-21 victory at Wildcat Stadium.
The Rutgers University recruit, as he has done all season, burned the defense with his legs (126 yards and two touchdowns) and with his strong right arm (269 yards, four TDs).
Bloomsburg is not known for its defense but the Panthers made it tough going for the Wildcats up front until Mifflinburg (8-3) put together a 75-yard scoring drive on 10 plays, capped by Michael Wiand's 9-yard TD run to get the Wildcats within 21-7 with 5:55 left in the second quarter.
"I was really pleased with (the defense). The first couple series we were really aggressive, and we were wrapping up," said Bloomsburg coach Larry Sones. "And then they made a couple plays that put them right back into it. But it's high school football, these things happen."
It seemed like every time Mifflinburg was about to make a game of it, along came the Panthers' gunslinger to hit the 'Cats right between the eyes.
On the next play after the ensuing kickoff (Mifflinburg was flagged for an offside penalty, then booted it out of bounds twice) following Wiand's score, Bloomsburg got the ball at the Mifflinburg 39 and Rankin throw a strike down the middle to tight end Tyler Vincent to put his team back up 28-7.
Mifflinburg coach Jason Dressler, "They have nice combinations there with Rankin and his receivers and they did a nice job."
The Panthers (8-2) travel to Towanda next week for a semifinal match-up.
The next time he got the ball, Rankin put the Panthers in the end zone again on a one-play "drive" hitting wide receiver John Klingerman in stride on a skinny post and it was 35-7 with 2:03 still to play in the first half.
The wild first-half scoring ended with a 65-yard TD pass from Pierce off a double-pass (a lateral from quarterback Kyle Failor), to Dustin Mertz and it was 35-14 at the break.
Then the defenses took over until, after a sack of Rankin by Nazar Mironenko, the Panther quarterback threw a fourth-and-7 37-yard TD pass to Colby Klingerman. Adam Naessig's PAT try hit the upright and it was 41-14.
Not ready to pack it in, the Wildcats scored on the next play after the kickoff as quarterback Kyle Failor found an opening over the right side and rambled 67 yards for a touchdown as the home team pulled to within 41-21.
Sones said he didn't feel comfortable until after the game and he saw the score on the scoreboard.
Rankin said, "I wasn't concerned much. Obviously they are a good team and you have to worry about it a little bit, but I had all the confidence in the world in our defense to make plays."
The Wildcats lost two starters to injuries. In the first half, tight end Bradee Ruhl was sandwiched by two defenders while trying to catch a pass; in the fourth quarter, Failor went down after a short run. Both were taken away by ambulance and Dressler did not have any information on them after the game.
Dressler said the second-half comeback was important to his players, many of them underclassmen.
"That goes back to leadership. Nobody gave up, they didn't even talk about giving up. They said 'we gotta stick with it' and they did, they stuck with it. There is just no give-up here,'' he said.
Bloomsburg tonight was the better team, bottom line."