By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
They had run the play on several occasions, the quick little flare pass to the left flat, just beyond the line of scrimmage, and usually with good success.
The play produced 11 yards for the Aquinas Li’l Irish on the game’s first play on Friday night against McQuaid. It led to a 39-yard gain by Terrell Richards on their second drive, helping to set up the second touchdown.
Quarterback Mykel White hit Richards again on the route on the third Aquinas series to pick up a key first down on the way to another touchdown and a 21-6 lead early in the second quarter.
But when the Li’l Irish tossed that flare pass one more time when driving into McQuaid territory midway through the fourth quarter in a tie game, senior defensive back Gavin Brownlie was waiting.
Brownlie intercepted at the McQuaid 30 and then raced 48 yards, setting up John Harding’s third touchdown of the game as the visiting Knights rallied for a 34-27 opening-night victory over their fiercest rival.
“Gavin had seen it all game, he kept it in front of him all night, and this time he just broke on it,” McQuaid coach Bobby Bates said.
Indeed, Brownlie read the play perfectly, bursting forward to intercept as Richards cut inside.
“I could tell they were trying to target No. 4 there,” Brownlie said. “I was playing my guy and I saw the quarterback throw it and saw they weren’t on the same page.”
Once he made the pick, Brownlie scampered to the Aquinas 12. McQuaid then needed just three plays to take their first lead, with Harding barreling into the end zone from a yard out. When Dominic Sansone kicked the extra point, the Knights led 34-27 with 6:35 to play.
“Right when Gavin got the interception you could feel the momentum switch,” said Harding, a junior running back. “And then the defense really clutched-up.”
Aquinas had plenty of time to erase the deficit, starting from its own 23 on the ensuing series. But the McQuaid defense allowed just two first downs and the Li’l Irish turned the ball over on downs at the Knights 46 with 1:53 remaining.
And to think that with just 3:17 elapsed in the second quarter, McQuaid trailed 21-6 and hadn’t stopped the Aquinas offense once.
The Li’l Irish drove 60 yards on eight plays for the first touchdown, a catch-and-run 9-yard score by Eimaj Giddens 3:36 into the game. They executed a six-play, 71-yard march, capped by a 15-yard burst by C.J. Robinson, on their second possession. And their third series became a nine-play, 61-yard drive to paydirt, with Giddens capping the drive with a 3-yard run.
“I felt when we came out, we got punched in the mouth,” Harding said.
McQuaid found a way to claw back, however. That maybe says a little about the culture of the program, which has won the past three Section V Class AA championship. On Friday night there was no panic despite the 15-point deficit.
“It was a situation we’ve been in before,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Timothy Hahn said. “It’s continuing a tradition of no matter what, we’re always in the game.”
The Knights proved it by scoring on back-to-back possessions before halftime. Sophomore quarterback Will DiMarco found junior wideout Brenton Paladino with a 21-yard strike, cutting the deficit to 21-13 with 5:18 left in the second quarter.
After an AQ punt, McQuaid drove 54 yards in eight plays and pulled within a point 21-20 when DiMarco scored on a 7-yard run 24 seconds before halftime.
“To get that touchdown before halftime changed the game, for sure,” Brownlie said.
Aquinas extended the lead to 27-20 in the final minute of the third quarter when White found fullback Tano Auriuso with a 4-yard TD pass.
But McQuaid retaliated immediately, as Harding caught a short toss in the left flat, split two defenders and raced untouched 56 yards for the tying touchdown.
“It feels great scoring on your rival,” Harding said, “but I just feel grateful to get to play in a special game like this, McQuaid and Aquinas.”