Like usual in the head-to-head series, Saturday afternoon's Midwest Football Conference battle between long-time rivals Iowa Central and Ellsworth went right down to the wire.
In the end, the Panthers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by reeling off three unanswered second-half touchdowns en route to a crushing 24-17 setback for the 16th-ranked (NJCAA) Tritons (5-2 overall, 0-2 MFC) at Dodger Stadium.
"We started off ahead 14-0, looked like we had things under control and were playing like we wanted to," ICCC head coach Kevin Twait said. "(The Panthers) then gained all the momentum and really dominated the second half. My hat's off to Ellsworth, but we just let one (win) slip away on our home field."
Joe Feldpausch, a sophomore safety, pushed the Tritons in front early by scooping up a fumble and rumbling 19 yards to paydirt. Iowa Central later cushioned its lead on a six-yard scoring dash from freshman signal-caller Chris Bell at the 9:49 mark of the second quarter.
Trailing by that same margin, Ellsworth (4-2, 2-0) finally broke through as time expired in the second period on an Alex Bainter 28-yard field goal. The key play on the drive was a 37-yard strike from Jordan Doyle to Ciavy Wiles.
"Up until that big pass play, we seemed to have had the upper hand," said Twait. "For them to get on the board there late in the half was probably a turning point in the game."
Iowa Central7 7 3 0- 17
Ellsworth0 3 14 7-24
Iowa Central - Joe Feldpausch (19-yard fumble return), 5:22 left first. Alden Haffar kick.
Iowa Central - Chris Bell (6-yard run), 9:49 left second. Haffar kick.
Ellsworth - Alex Bainter (28-yard field goal), as time expired in second.
Iowa Central - Haffar (47-yard field goal), 9:52 left third.
Ellsworth - Ciavy Wiles (22-yard pass from Jordan Doyle), 5:14 left third. Bainter kick.
Ellsworth - JT Tolbert (15-yard pass from Doyle), 14:28 left fourth. Bainter kick.
Ellsworth - Tolbert (57-yard pass from Oscar Ross), 4:04 left fourth. Bainter kick.
Rushing - Iowa Central: Jontel Clayton 21-76, Wesley Burnside 10-28, Chris Bell 7-14, DJ Avant 1-9, Jimmy Purvin 1-3, Brandynn Clark 1-(minus-6). Ellsworth: Jordan Doyle 21-92, Trey Gilbert 14-43, Eric Pruitt 1-4, Oscar Ross 1-2, Team 2-(minus-23).
Passing - Iowa Central: Chris Bell 7-17-1-64. Ellsworth: Doyle 15-31-1-199, Ross 1-1-0-57.
Receiving - Iowa Central: Clark 4-38, Jaquon Goodman 1-11, Keagan Parks 1-8, Willie Williams 1-7. Ellsworth: JT Tolbert 6-113, Ciavy Wales 6-110, Amari Williams 3-28, Gilbert 1-5.
Alden Haffar's booming 47-yard field goal eventually widened the Triton advantage midway through the third, however, Iowa Central would be held in check the rest of the way by the aggressive Panther defensive unit, which limited the home squad to a season-low 188 yards of total offense - with 124 of those coming on the ground.
"(Ellsworth) was a little better against the run than what we expected," Twait said. "We weren't very crisp with our passing game, though, either (yesterday). We had some blown routes and failed to execute for really the first time all season."
JT Tolbert's 57-yard scoring reception off a double pass from Oscar Ross with 4:04 left in the contest proved to be the knockout blow from the Panthers, who overcame a botched snap on a 39-yard field goal attempt on their previous possession.
"It was bad coaching and bad playing on our part for them to score on that double pass," said Twait. "Outside of those two big plays through the air, I thought our defense did a pretty darn good job."
In the second half, Iowa Central ran only 22 plays from scrimmage compared to 45 for Ellsworth. During that stretch, the Tritons managed just three first downs, while the Panthers collected 11.
Fort Dodge Senior High graduate Jontel Clayton was again the catalyst in the Iowa Central backfield, accumulating 76 yards on 21 carries. Clayton, who finished second nationally in rushing yards last fall with 1,477, needs 282 more yards to become the program's all-time top rusher.
Bell also completed 7 of 17 passes for 64 yards and a pick.
Aside from Feldpausch's fumble recovery, the Tritons received an interception from safety Chris McGee and a sack by linebacker Cory Svenson. Iowa Central converted a fake punt as well on its second drive of the day, as DJ Avant scampered nine yards for a first down.
Doyle propelled the Panther offensive attack, netting 92 rushing yards and 199 yards passing. Tolbert (6 receptions, 113 yards) and Wiles (6, 110) were the go-to receivers for Ellsworth, which prevailed for a fourth straight outing despite committing 12 penalties for 85 yards.
"Anytime you face a dual-threat quarterback that can run and throw, it obviously puts a lot of extra pressure on the defense," Twait said.
Dating back to the 2002-03 campaign, the Tritons have now dropped seven of their past 12 meetings with the Panthers. Eight of those outcomes have been decided by eight points or less.
Next action for Iowa Central is Saturday at No. 1 Iowa Western (7-0, 2-0). Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. in Council Bluffs. The unbeaten Reivers hammered North Dakota State College of Science yesterday, 64-6.