BIG SANDY - At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Big Sandy head football coach Scott Chauvet noticed something: The players on the Sheridan Panther defense were bent over tugging on their pants.
The scrappy Panthers were wearing down against a relentless Big Sandy rushing attack that was only getting stronger.
The Pioneers broke open an 18-12 game with 14 fourth-quarter points to pick up a 32-14 win in quarterfinal action in the Class C football playoffs.
"At the end of the third quarter, you could see they were getting tired of tackling us," Chauvet said. "They were starting to wear down and we were just getting revved up. That's when the momentum swung our way."
Big Sandy got a clutch 20-yard option run from Gage Brumwell for a score and a 3-yard plunge from Mason Ophus to ice the game. While Brumwell and Ophus got the scores, running back Skylar Pearson did most of the work getting them there.
Pearson put in another workmanlike effort, grinding out 158 yards on 30-plus carries. Not a single one of Pearson's yards came easily as Sheridan consistently had two and three guys in on each tackle.
"They were like mosquitoes," Chauvet said. "They were just everywhere. Skylar earned every one of those 158 yards. A lot of them came two or three yards at a time. But he seemed to get stronger as the game went on and his gains went to 5 and 6 yards."
Pearson opened the scoring for Big Sandy, rumbling in from 8 yards out for the first score of the game in the first quarter.
Big Sandy added a second score as Adam Jesperson weaved his way in on a 31-yard TD run.
Even up 12-0, Chauvet still knew he was in a tough game.
"I watched them play twice live," Chauvet said. "I knew they would hit us and tackle and they wouldn't quit."
The Panthers answered late in the second quarter as Ty Bieroth plunged in from 1 yard out. The score was set up with a big gain on a reverse to Brian Allhands.
"The kids were a little flustered at halftime," Chauvet said. "We told the kids to just believe in what we were doing. We weren't executing real great in the first half."
While not wanting to make excuses, Chauvet admitted his team suffered with the onslaught of rough weather early in the week.
"We looked like we practiced in a gym all week," Chauvet said. "We just weren't very crisp and I think it was because we didn't get the live reps like we normally do."
The Pioneers looked much better in the second half as the rust was starting to wear off on the offense and quarterback Gage Brumwell in particular.
Brumwell, who had been diagnosed with mononucleosis, has been limited to little if any practice. After looking a little shaky early in the game, he looked anything but sickly in the second half.
With Sheridan blitzing on almost every possession, Brumwell connected with Jesperson and Ophus on key third-down passes to set up his 3-yard touchdown run.
While the Pioneer offense was coming to life, the defense continued to play consistently. Big Sandy shut down the Sheridan offense, forcing it into trick plays. The Panthers' second score came on a double-reverse pass as running back Brian Allhands connected with wide receiver Pete Rossiter on a 51-yard touchdown.
"We bit so hard on that double reverse pass," Chauvet said. "They ran a lot of trick plays, but that's a credit to our defense because they had to go to them since we weren't allowing anything else. Our defense is salty. Nobody ever runs against us. We knew we were going to get tested."
However, the defense had an answer for the test. Devin Genereux picked off three passes, two of them leading to Brumwell's and Ophus's fourth-quarter scores.
"They were a semifinal team last year," Chauvet said. "This game was a mixed blessing. It showed our team that at this level this is how you have to play. We haven't played in too many closes games this year and we needed one of these games."
With the win, Big Sandy moves into the semifinal round of the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
"The quarterfinals have kind of been a jinx for Big Sandy the past 10 years," Chauvet said. "Before the game, they were so quiet and didn't seem loose at all and it showed in the first half. But give the kids a lot of credit. They really got after it in the second half."
Some of those pregame nerves could be from how much went into this game from a community standpoint. According to Chauvet, at least 15 men from the community showed up at 6 a.m. the morning of the game to clear the snow off the field and reline it for the game.
"I don't think the kids realized how important this is to the adults in the community," Chauvet said. "But then they see those guys out there working to get the field ready and they started to understand. We used that as a little motivation to go out and play well for those people."
Big Sandy will now face a tough Wibaux Longhorn squad in the semifinals on Saturday in Wibaux. The Longhorns defeated Stanford 34-19 to move into the semifinals.