Strickly Panthers: Baker kicks punt returner to curb

SEATTLE – "Just the punter to beat!"

That's often the television call when a punt returner breaks into the open field, and more often than not, the returner will win that matchup.

That must be what Leon Washington thought was going to happen Sunday.

When Washington reached midfield midway through the third quarter of Seattle's 31-14 victory over Carolina, Washington looked like he was gone. When he reached the 40-yard line, he started extending his arm skyward to celebrate his impending touchdown.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't mildly disrespected when he put his hand up at the 30-yard line," Panthers punter Jason Baker said. "At that point, I decided I was going to do my best to get him."

That's exactly what Baker did. Washington didn't appear to slow down, but Baker found another gear, lunged, and got just enough of Washington's right heel to trip him up at the 2-yard line.

"He's a really good returner. He's probably used to getting there," Baker said. "My responsibility really isn't any different than the other 10 guys on our punt team. We all have shoulder pads on.

"My guess is that if he had the play to do over again, he'd probably have taken a different angle or did something different than celebrate at the 30-yard line."

The Seahawks were able to punch it in and extend their lead to 24-14, but Baker's play epitomized the Panthers' continued determination in the midst of a difficult season.

"Jason is a heck of an athlete," head coach John Fox said. "It was a great effort on Jason's part."


HOMEMADE STEW: Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart said Sunday's game felt a lot like a homecoming – for a while.

"At the beginning, yeah," Stewart said, "but that gets shattered if you don't win."

With plenty of friends and family in attendance at Qwest Field, the Washington native continued his strong play of late, rushing for 92 yards and scoring a touchdown. Stewart, who set the state high school rushing record with 7.755 yards at Timberline High School in Lacey – one hour southwest of Seattle – has 190 yards in two games since returning from a concussion.

In eight games before suffering the concussion against New Orleans on Nov. 7, Stewart totaled 208 yards.

"I think I've run fine – that's what they drafted me for," Stewart said. "The offensive line has been doing really well, creating lanes for us to run through. That's what we're supposed to do."

The Panthers practiced at the University of Washington on Friday and Saturday. The last time Stewart played there, as a junior at the University of Oregon, he rushed for 251 yards.

"Of course I thought about that and about a couple of runs," he said.

Saturday night, Stewart's alma mater clinched a berth into the BCS National Championship Game with a victory over rival Oregon State.

"Every week I've been following them," Stewart said. "Hopefully I'll get an opportunity to go see them play in the national championship."

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