By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
They had been in control for the better part of 16 minutes, ever since Sam Sheldon’s touchdown pass to Aiden McDonald broke a tie midway through the third quarter.
But now, as the clock wound down in the fourth quarter, the Greece Athena Trojans were doing more than just bending on defense. They were on the verge of breaking.
And that 20-14 lead that Athena held for more than a quarter seemed tenuous at best.
The visiting Geneva Panthers had driven 51 yards in just under seven minutes, and were just 11 yards from the end zone with 1:40 to play.
Athena desperately needed someone to make a play.
Enter junior defensive end Michael Simpson. As strong-armed Panthers quarterback Wyatt Patchett rolled left on second-down-and-5 from the Athena 11 yard line, Simpson powered through a blocker and sacked the Geneva quarterback at the 21.
Instead of a manageable third-and-short, the Panthers were forced out of their comfort zone and into must-complete long passes, which didn’t happen, and the Trojans held on for the 20-14 victory on Saturday afternoon.
“We needed a sack, we had to get in the backfield,” Simpson said of the defensive mindset as Geneva threatened. “They came my way and I had my chance to make a play.”
For Athena, it was a defensive stand that made coaches proud. Both the third- and fourth-down passes to the end zone by Geneva fell incomplete.
“We were in a base defense and guys came up big when they had to,” said Athena first-year head coach Mike Husdan, who had been an assistant with the program for the better part of two decades.
For the Panthers, it was a disappointing end to a game that left them saying, “What if?”
They had made big plays — a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 69-yard TD bomb —but also self-destructed with three first-half, special-teams turnovers.
A muffed catch on the opening kickoff led to Athena’s first touchdown, a 13-yard scamper by quarterback Joshua Ranalletta that was possible only because of a great block by running back Jayden Dorsey.
— Paul Gotham (@PickinSplinters) September 7, 2019
The Panthers also fumbled away another kickoff and lost a punt after a muffed catch.
And yet, here they were, in the final two minutes, in position to win.
“I was really proud of our effort,” Geneva coach Mike Pane said. “We could have folded up, and we didn’t. We just made some physical mistakes that we need to clean up.”
Athena had the instant 7-0 lead after the turnover on the opening kickoff, and a Geneva fumble on the next kickoff gave the Trojans another great chance to score. They were first-and-10 at the Geneva 33.
But this time the Panthers made the huge play. A heavy pass rush forced a lob to the right flat that Dugan Doeblin intercepted and returned 68 yards for a touchdown and a 7-7 score.
The Trojans came right back on their next possession with a 64-yard touchdown drive. Dorsey carried for 42 of those yards, and the TD came on a fourth-and-six pass from Ranalletta to Tristan Ellison for a 14-7 lead.
The 69-yard catch-and-run TD from Patchett to Javon Loucks with 44 seconds left in the first half tied the score 14-14.
Athena again went back on top, taking advantage of a short punt and short field. Sheldon found McDonald near the back of the end zone for the go-ahead TD. Or, as Sheldon preferred to say, McDonald found the ball.
He said he threw to a spot based on the options of the receives and McDonald, even while being interfered with, adjusted and came back to make the catch.
“I just kind of tossed one up and he made a great catch,” Sheldon said of the TD with 5:35 left in the third quarter.
The score was still 20-14 in the fourth quarter when the Panthers rather unobtrusively took the ball back on downs on their own 38 yard line with 8:32 on the clock. They intended for it to be the final drive of the game.
“That was our mindset,” Pane said. “We didn’t need any home runs, we just needed to do what we do.”
They ate up nearly six minutes by the time they reached the Athena 11, and may have completed the winning comeback, too, if not for Simpson. But his sack killed the momentum.
“We had a little momentum going and that took us out of down-and-distance,” Pane said.
The final two passes were well defended.
“You see the ball flying in the air and I believe in our coverage,” Simpson said.