By Ray Hamill — Arcata’s Shane Purcell threw for five more touchdowns on Friday night, but it was his contribution at cornerback that saved the Tigers late.
With five starters out and another player ejected early in the second half, Arcata had to dig deep to get the better of a battling McKinleyville team.
But thanks in large part to a pair of second-half Purcell interceptions, the visiting Tigers held off a furious late rally by the home team to win 38-32.
Both teams scored five touchdowns in a highly entertaining showdown between these two great rivals, but the difference ultimately was the Tigers converting four of five two-point conversions and the Panthers missing on four of their five.
The win was the seventh straight for the soaring Tigers, who clinched the Little 4 outright in the process and will carry plenty of momentum into the North Coast Section playoffs in two weeks.
With so many players sidelined through injury, a number of the team’s younger players were thrust into starting roles.
“It was weird,” said head coach Jamal Jones, whose team opened up big leads twice in the game only to see the Panthers claw their way back each time. “We had to shuffle some players around and we had a bunch of freshmen out there making freshmen mistakes.
“I don’t want to take anything from McKinleyville, they played well, but freshmen make freshmen mistakes.”
For the second straight week, the Tigers were missing multiple starters on the offensive line, but Jones says he is expecting to be back at full strength for the playoffs.
Purcell played a pivotal role once again, throwing for five more touchdowns and three interceptions, while also coming away with the two crucial second-half picks, one of which led to a touchdown.
“It was a weird night for him,” Jones said of the senior standout, who took over at cornerback in the second half. “He played cornerback against Sutter (in week two), but he hasn’t practiced corner in weeks.
Check out Jack Clancy’s 24-yard TD run above …
“Shane’s just a baller. To throw an interception and come back and get two picks. And he delivered some shots today. Some beautiful shots.”
Purcell connected with fellow senior Carson Tucker for two first-quarter TDs, one for 38 yards and one for 16.
The Panthers responded early in the second quarter when junior Jack Clancy scored on a two-yard QB sneak.
The touchdown was the first of four that Clancy would be involved in, and it was set up on a long Mettah Kuska reception.
Both teams were just getting warmed up, and the Tigers responded quickly themselves with a third consecutive TD drive, with Purcell finding Oscar Carlson on a five-yard scoring pass to give Arcata a 24-8 lead.
But the Panthers scored two TDs in a 45 second spell late in the second quarter to pull back within four points at the interval.
Clancy connected on a 19-yard scoring pass to Graeson Amato to cap an 11-play, 80-yard drive with 1:34 on the clock, and after the Mack defense had forced a quick three-and-out he then connected with Kuska on a 58-yard TD pass.
The Tigers, however, would pull away again in the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on their opening two possessions of the half and they led 38-20 going into the fourth.
Purcell threw a 34-yard TD pass to Ty Franklin midway through the third and followed that with a nine-yard TD pass to Carlson with less than a minute remaining in the quarter.
But once again, the Panthers found a way to battle back, capping an eight-play, 69-yard drive on a one-yard Connor Berg TD run less then three minutes into the fourth quarter.
Two plays later, McKinleyville’s John Randall pulled in his second interception of the game to set up another scoring drive, with Clancy finding the end zone on a 24-yard run.
There was still almost five minutes remaining, but that would be the end of the scoring, with both defenses tightening up late in the game.
The Panthers got the ball back with 2:34 on the clock, but saw any hopes of an upset disappear when Purcell pulled in his second interception on a fourth-down play moments later.
“It was a great game for my kids coming off the pandemic situation,” said McKinleyville head coach Fel Barlow, whose team had to cancel last weekend’s game because of COVID protocols and has been limited in practice. “We had 16 kids who played with big heart.”
In addition to his two TD catches, Carlson added a first-quarter fumble recovery that would set up Arcata’s second TD of the game, while Kuska also had an interception for the Panthers late in the first half.
Purcell has now thrown for 36 TDs in the Tigers’ seven-game winning streak.
With the win, the Tigers improved to 5-0 in the Little 4 and 7-2 overall.
The Panthers dropped to 1-3 and 4-4.