There is little debate as to where Thursday night's first-round Sterlington-Baker playoff game was won and lost.
On a night when the Panthers' offense wasn't firing on all cylinders, the defense had their back.
Leading 28-8 early in the second quarter, Sterlington watched its lead shrink to 28-22 at halftime.
With the score still the same late in the third quarter, the Panthers erased all doubts about the outcome with a scoop and score and a pick-6 on consecutive snaps.
Linebacker Dawson Snell, naturally, created the first turnover, stripping the ball away on a sack. Safety Trevor Jones made the recovery at the 18 and took it to the house unimpeded.
"The team needed a big play because we were only up 6 and the offense was struggling," Jones said. "When Dawson knocked the ball loose, I saw the opportunity and took it."
Twenty-two seconds later, cornerback Dorian Eddins intercepted a tipped pass at the 39.
"The receiver ran a slant. The pass was a little high and went off his fingers," Eddins said.
Upon making the catch, Eddins was escorted to the end zone by Bailyn McKoin, Chris Parker and Snell.
"I caught the ball, got behind my teammates and they led me to the touchdown," Eddins said. "That was my first pick-6 ever."
Eddins said the Panthers had not practiced the touchdown return, but his defensive teammates clearly knew what to do as they set up a wall.
"We do our best to get turnovers," Eddins said. "When we get them, we go with the flow."
Buoyed by the two defensive touchdowns, the Panthers increased their lead to 42-22.
"The two defensive touchdowns were huge," Sterlington coach Lee Doty said. "We were sputtering on offense at the time, and those two plays provided a spark. We made some adjustments defensively, and I thought we had them under control. Being able to score twice on defensive touchdowns got the kids back into it and got the fans back into it.
"Sometimes the defense gets it done, sometimes it's the offense."
Moments later, the defense got it done again.
Colby Rivera came up with a fumble recovery on the next play from scrimmage to put the Panthers back in business at the Baker 27. Three plays, three turnovers. Dupree's 15-yard run widened the spread to 49-22 late in the third quarter.
It was all but over.
Eddins was also involved in a big play on special teams early in the game. Sterlington punted on its first possession, but Eddins pounced on the muffed kick at the 18. Austin Dupree took it in from there on the ensuing snap to give the Panthers an early 7-0 lead.
Sterlington eventually opened up a 28-8 lead early in the second quarter, but the Buffaloes sliced the deficit to 28-22. With an opportunity to take the lead just before intermission, Baker fumbled the ball out of back of the end zone.
"The touchback right before the half gave us the momentum," Eddins said. "Up until then, they had the momentum and were about to tie the game."
Despite being thoroughly outplayed over the final 10:30 of the half, the Panthers carried a single-possession lead into the locker room.
Sterlington would regroup, though.
"We never panic at halftime because we know we're a second half team," Jones said.
On the other hand, the Panthers tend to get out of the gate slowly.
"We definitely need to turn it on in the first half as we get later into the playoffs," Jones said.
When play resumed in the second half, a pick-6 never crossed Eddins' mind.
"We knew we had to make a stop to go out and put the ball back in the offense's hands, and take control of the game," Eddins said.
It may not have been the way Eddins planned it, but the Panthers seized control of the game in no uncertain terms.
Jones says the tighter-than-expected first half was a product of facing an underrated opponent rather than the top-seeded Panthers getting caught up in reading the bracket. (Baker came in as the No. 32 seed).
"Coach Doty told us not to look down on them," Jones said. "The film doesn't lie. We knew they were better than a No. 32 seed. They were pretty physical."
SLOW STARTERS: Sterlington trailed Calvary Baptist 20-17 before outscoring the Cavaliers 21-0 in the fourth quarter on its way to a 38-17 Week 5 victory.
Over the final four regular season games, the Panthers were tied with Wossman 6-6 at the end of the first quarter, led lowly Madison Parish 10-6 at halftime, trailed Union Parish 15-13 at the break and were down 21-14 in the third quarter against Richwood.
While finishing strong is an admirable trait, the slow starts remain a cause of concern.
"I can't really explain why we start so slow," Doty said. "If I knew, we could correct it. But I am glad we have to play two halves. If we just had to play one half, we might be 5-5."
KICKING GAME: Sterlington's specialists continued to shine Thursday night.
Landon Green has made 53-of-55 PATs after nailing all seven attempts vs. Baker. Davis Johnson converted the final two extra points as the Panthers finished the game 9-for-9.
Punter Brooks Rushworth's 39-yard punt in the fourth quarter was downed by Jordan Townsend at the 1.
BAKER TURNOVERS: The Buffaloes contributed to their own demise with eight turnovers (7 fumbles, 1 interception).
"We scored 42 points off turnovers," Doty said. "Fortunately, tonight they put the ball on the ground and threw one to us, and helped us out."
SIGNING CEREMONY: Sterlington quarterback/shortstop Carson Clowers will sign a letter-of-intent to attend Shelton State (Alabama) Community College on a baseball scholarship Tuesday morning.
Clowers helped the Panthers win Class 2A state championships in football and baseball last season. It marked the first state title for both programs.