DECATUR -- It might have been when Eisenhower quarterback Cayleb Dehority guided a four-play drive for the first score.
It could have been when Erik Thomas took the first of two punt returns back for touchdowns.
Or it might have been when Tymon Scott bull rushed his way into the backfield for two sacks on Jacksonville's first drive.
It's hard to pin down exactly, but sometime during Eisenhower's dominant 54-22 win against Jacksonville, one thing was clear.
Panthers football is back.
"I'm 3-2 right now," Eisenhower coach Drew Wagers said, unable to contain some laughter. "We just running clocked the supposed No. 3 team in conference, so I'm doing pretty good."
The Panthers had been on the radar after playing state champions Rochester and SHG close but had lost. Then they beat up on rebuilding MacArthur and Lincoln.
Friday night was where they found out where in the middle of the Central State 8 they fell. After thoroughly beating Jacksonville, a team that's already beaten three of those "middle teams," Eisenhower's ready to stake its claim.
"Yeah, this is definitely a different caliber win," Wagers said. "That's what we had talked about all week."
They did by neutralizing Joe Brannan, the Jacksonville quarterback who's led an offense averaging 36.5 points per game.
The Panthers held Brannan to 18-for-37 passing for 206 yards, but it was the four interceptions that sealed it. This was the first test after Eisenhower had been torched by Rochester and SHG, and it couldn't have gone much better.
Two of those picks came courtesy of Thomas, another from Jordan Young and Colton Lockwood outjumped his way to No. 4. But it was Lamontie Williams who held Jacksonville's top receiver James White to three catches for 12 yards through the first three quarters before the running clock took off.
"I think the question mark was my defensive backs," Wagers said. "They had question marks. They really weren't tested in the MacArthur or Lincoln games too much compared to Rochester and SHG. And tonight, they played spectacularly. We played man on them and that's all we did."
"It was awesome," Thomas said. "It's the first time being a team leader for a game, and it was awesome to score twice."
It was a change of pace as the defense picked up an offense that sputtered a bit early on. Salat Al-Nurridin (92 total yards) helped put the Panthers into goal line situations where Dehority used his powerful frame to explode through linebackers.
On his first, Dehority was hit in the backfield and he overpowered multiple Jacksonville defenders before crossing the goal line.
"Yeah, I was definitely pushing myself into overdrive a little bit," Dehority said. "I mean, we had to come out here and get it done, there were no excuses if we wouldn't have gotten it done."
Add in Thomas' two punt returns and a botched snap that Lockwood turned into a 38-yard pass, and Eisenhower never relented.
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"We just played unbelievable on all sides of the ball," Wagers said.
It's a change for Eisenhower. For 10 years, they've waited to return to the postseason. Now after beating Jacksonville and grabbing the third win, ending that drought seems very, very real.
"The atmosphere is unbelievable. It's great that we're here," Wagers said. "I haven't been here in the eight or nine years I've been in this program. My third year as head coach, I couldn't ask for anything better. We just running clocked a really good team.
"I feel good about the rest of the games down the stretch. As long as we continue to execute and play like this down the stretch, I'm going to be coaching in Week 10. And Eisenhower hasn't seen that for quite a while.
"It's a great feeling. I want to bottle this feeling up and remember it and feel it forever. It's a great feeling."
Change is in the air
This team is incredibly fun to watch, and part of it is because there are so many different players that contributed to Friday's win.
And because of the way they did it -- all season long, the Panthers' passing has been what's made them such an exciting team. On Friday, Dehority didn't even throw to Lockwood and Stephon Bobbitt in the first half, and Eisenhower scored 35 points.
Learning to fly
Tymon Scott is starting to learn. And he may already be one of the most destructive defensive lineman in the conference.
His four sacks were powerful and his disruption on multiple interceptions was helpful. But it was his strength in dragging a Jacksonville ball-carrier back almost 10 yards while trying to rip the ball out where Scott was at his most impressive.
"Using my hands," Scott said of the difference from last year to this year. "Last year, I didn't use my hands much, and I couldn't get anything going. This year I'm using my hands to get them off me and get back there and keep them away."
More than football
The win was more than just a measuring stick for Eisenhower, it came on a night dedicated to fighting childhood cancer.
It was the second straight year the Panthers have had an "Orange" game, the color for pediatric cancer research, because of the efforts of the Dehority family. Cayleb's 5-year-old brother Cayden is in remission for leukemia, and was recognized before the game.
There were orange socks, painted orange ribbons on the field and even an orange sunset than fell around Eisenhower's sidelines just before kickoff.
"It's great," Dehority said. "Turning around and looking up to see everybody wearing orange. it's just great that all my family, friends, peers can come together and wear the orange in support of my little brother. It feels awesome."
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