MISHAWAKA | Back-pedaling into a quickly crumbling pocket with a defender closing fast, Penn senior quarterback Zach Oakley refused to panic early in Friday’s game against Portage.
In previous seasons, Oakley likely would have scrapped the play, tucked the ball away and scrambled for some running room. But having worked all summer on his passing skills, the Central Michigan-bound Oakley decided to let the screen call play out and see what might develop.
Oakley waited, waited and waited a little longer before floating an easy offering to running back Tyler Carpenter in the left flat as the blocking set up for a big-gainer. Sixty-eight yards later, Carpenter was in the end zone and six more points were on the scoreboard. It was Oakley’s second touchdown pass of the first quarter during a 32-0 Kingsmen victory at Freed Field.
“We were just coming out and doing whatever was working for us,” said Oakley, who completed 10-of-20 passes for 152 yards. “We saw a lot of open holes in the passing game that we worked on all week. We just took advantage of it.”
It was the second of four straight road games for Portage, which opened the season with a win at Mishawaka. This ride home from St. Joseph County through some rain and wind and lightning likely wasn’t as happy.
“We completely and utterly laid an egg on offense,” said Portage coach Wally McCormack as lightning flashed nearby. “Their kids just whipped us on offense. We didn’t block anybody. We didn’t stay on anybody. We couldn’t get anything going.
“You can’t ask the defense to play any better against a pretty good team.”
A Penn team built on power turned to a little finesse Friday. Make that a lot of it. Of Penn’s first 13 plays, nine were passes. There were many nights the last decade where the Kingsmen didn’t thrown nine passes in an entire game.
How odd was it for sixth-ranked Penn (2-0) to play the passing-game card? Imagine a team that throws on first, second and third down suddenly going to the power option. It’s just not expected.
But if it works ...
“It definitely takes some stress off the offensive line,” Oakley said. “They’re not having to pound it all the time. Second half, we ended up just pounding the ball.”
Penn, which ran for 294 yards in a 49-7 victory the previous week at Valparaiso, finished with one rushing yard in the first 12 minutes. The Kingsmen then tallied 114 in the third quarter thanks to a big helping of Carpenter. He scored twice in the period en route to 77 total rushing yards in addition to 83 receiving yards.
What is always expected at Penn is a determined defense, and the Kingsmen delivered for the second consecutive week. After allowing only one score in the opener in Porter County, Penn never allowed Portage (1-1) near the end zone.
The one time the Indians got close early in the third quarter following an interception of Oakley at the Kingsmen 40, the home team held the visitors to three plays, a motion penalty and a punt. End of threat.
“We were just flying around; everybody just doing their piece of the pie,” said senior linebacker Aaron Hancock, who didn’t let a hot night cool his motor. “We go into every game hoping for a shutout.
“We need to do our piece to make it easier on the offense, and they always do their piece.”
Penn’s defense did it Friday against the option, an attack that’s difficult to prepare for in a week. But the Kingsmen played like they had practiced against it morning, noon and night for the last month. Anywhere an Indian ball carrier tried to go, he was greeted by a swarm of tacklers. Surprises and big plays were minimal.
Penn limited Portage to four first downs, 63 rushing yards and nine passing yards. The Kingsmen also forced seven fumbles and recovered three.
“We just don’t give up; we just keep playing until the whistle,” Hancock said. “Hopefully, we keep getting three-and-outs and keep getting better and better.
“There’s always room for improvement.”
After holding the Indians to three plays and a punt on the game’s opening possession, Penn needed 10 plays to sail 67 yards in just over four minutes. The drive ended when Oakley, working out of a set that saw three receivers flood the right side, found wideout Nate Miller in the corner of the end zone from 26 yards.
Oakley threw for 134 yards and two scores the first 12 minutes.
Just when it looked like this one might get really one-sided, Portage gave Penn nothing the rest of the half, but it mattered little.
Still a close contest in the second half, Penn busted it open by capitalizing on two Portage turnovers that led to 18 unanswered points in the third quarter. The burst featured Carpenter touchdown runs of 19 and 13 yards. The rain finally arrived minutes after the second score.