For two quarters Friday night, the Wilmot and Central football teams slugged it out at Frank Bucci Field.
And that’s to be expected in a rivalry that dates back to 1963.
But eventually, it was Wilmot, which still has a shot at a share of the Southern Lakes Conference title, that pulled away with three unanswered touchdowns in the second half en route to a 41-14 victory.
The Panthers improved to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the SLC, one game behind Waterford (8-0, 6-0), which hammered Burlington, 49-14, on Friday night. Wilmot travels to Delavan-Darien in its regular-season finale this week, while Waterford closes out at Lake Geneva Badger.
Things seemed to turn on a strange punt play late in the third quarter.
The punt by Central’s Tyme Eppers drilled Jakob Simmons in the back, and after a 3-yard gain by Eppers, the Panthers had possession at the Falcons’ 19-yard line.
Five plays later, Wilmot quarterback Zack Watson connected on a 7-yard touchdown pass to Joseph Tanski to push a seven-point lead to 14 at 28-14 just 47 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Watson, who rushed 19 times for 161 yards and threw for 112 more, continues to be a difficult weapon for the opposition to handle, Wilmot coach Keiya Square said.
And his efforts through the air Friday night certainly played a significant role.
“He’s really good with his feet,” Square said. “The touchdowns that he threw were perfect balls, right on the money. He’s worked on that a ton. He works on it every day, and he’s confident throwing the ball.”
It’s no secret what needs to be done to slow down the Panthers, Central coach Tyson Mengel said.
“You have to stop Watson,” he said. “Fortunately for them and unfortunately for us, he had a good game.”
Wilmot added two insurance touchdowns just for good measure to close out the scoring.
Watson found a wide-open Leo Falletti for a 37-yard touchdown pass with 6 minutes, 31 seconds left in the game, and then connected on a 58-yard strike to Asher Schroeder with 3:01 remaining.
Tanski intercepted a pass on the game’s final play and appeared to score, but Wilmot was flagged for holding on the return with no time left on the clock.
Early on, the teams exchanged scoring plays as Central (2-6, 2-4), which starts 13 sophomores or freshmen on both sides of the football, went toe-to-toe with the Panthers.
Wilmot’s Cal Jenkins put the Panthers on the scoreboard first with a 1-yard touchdown run with 4:55 left in the opening quarter. Jenkins broke through the Falcons’ defensive front for a 47-yard run to set up his touchdown.
The second quarter featured a scoring flurry from both teams.
Simmons tied things at 7-7 on a tough 8-yard touchdown run, before Watson regained the lead for Wilmot on a 10-yard quarterback keeper with 9:11 left before intermission.
Again, Central answered on its next possession, this time on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Gavin Carlson, who withstood a heavy pass rush and found Myles Kazumura in stride to knot the game at 14-14.
Watson gave the Panthers the lead for good with an 8-yard run in the final 3:21 of the opening half.
“Early on, both teams were kind of doing what they wanted to do offensively,” Square said. “... We did exactly what we needed to do and kept our composure besides all the penalties, which really hurt us.”
Wilmot had nine penalties for 84 yards, which is something that Square knows needs to be cleaned up before the WIAA playoffs begin.
“We’ve had penalties here and there, but it’s never been like it was tonight,” he said. “We’ll have to go back and look at the film and just see where the breakdowns were and fix those things.”
Mengel was pleased with his team’s effort, especially in the first half.
“Our guys were fired up,” he said. “It’s our rivalry. We had some gadget plays coming out and were going to take some shots. (As coaches), we said, ‘We’re not going to hold back, so you guys don’t hold back.’ The first half, even in the third quarter, we came out swinging.
“But (Wilmot) is a good football team. You have to play a really good football game to beat that team.”