EAST ROCKHILL >> The manner in which Pennridge dominated the first half, a win by mercy rule and an early start on Thanksgiving Dinner wasn’t out of the question.
But an inspired comeback, powered by the record-setting production of running back Rob Burns, led rival Quakertown to a stunning, come-from-behind 28-21 victory at Helman Field Thursday morning, as the Panthers finished their season strong at 10-3, and the Rams couldn’t help but feel they let one get away.
“The momentum got away from us,” coach Jeff Hollenbach said. “We had momentum through halftime. Those kids were pumped up, they were ready to go.
“We played as well as we could play in that first half. The momentum slipped from us today and we could not recover.”
It looked as though Pennridge (8-4), after narrowly missing out on the playoffs, would finish out the season with consecutive wins, but it was Quakertown that took control in the second half and earned the victory in what was the 86th Turkey Day battle between the two schools.
“I told them to keep fighting,” Panthers coach George Banas said of the second-half rally. “Every chance I got to get in a huddle, I told them to keep fighting every play.”
Down 21-0 at the half, the Panthers came out and intercepted a Devon Balmer pass on the second play of the third quarter.
Quakertown, with the blue half of the capacity crowd roaring the whole way, marched 75 yards in 10 plays, with Burns capping the drive with a three-yard score to slice the margin to 21-7.
The Panthers were on their way, and Burns, who would gain 136 yards on 24 carries, was on his way to setting the school’s all-time leading rushing mark (3,780), breaking the previous mark held by 2010 graduate Tony Latronica (3,766).
“We were able to grind the gears there and get in a groove,” Burns said. “I gotta thank the o-line for sticking to their blocks.”
The Panthers would then try an onside kick, but Dean Urich not only recovered it for Pennridge but had a decent return and gave the Rams possession at the Quakertown 40.
With a prime chance to add to its lead, the Rams used the battering runs of fullback Nick Hirsch to drive to the Panther 18. But a fumbled snap on a field-goal attempt squirted free, and the margin remained at 14.
Just three plays player, Quakertown came up with the most exciting (trick) play of the contest, as wide receiver Aaron Besch threw to quarterback Tom Garlick for a 42-yard touchdown that brought the Panthers within 21-14.
Said Banas of the attitude at halftime: “We had 24 minutes and (the deficit) was only three touches — you can score quickly with the skill players that we have. We weren’t gonna hit the panic button.”
The Panthers were right back in it, and even after a turnover on their next series, the Quakertown defense forced the second of three interceptions on the day, leading to a six-play, 76-yard scoring drive.
Burns, once again, did the honors, racing in untouched on a 20-yard run to tie the game 21 all with 8 minutes, 11 seconds left to go.
“(In the first half), they had a really good defensive scheme going,” Banas said of the Rams. “They weren’t giving us the deep ball and they weren’t giving us a whole lot in the passing game. So we figured we’ll stay with our run.”
Jon Potynski came up with Quakertown’s third interception of the contest, giving the Panthers the ball at the Pennridge 24 with 7:19 remaining.
The Panthers converted a fourth down, drove down to the three, and from there, Burns raced in for his third TD to give Quakertown its first lead, 28-21, with 4:10 left on the clock.
The comeback was just about complete, and even more impressive because it came “against a really good team,” Banas said.
“They are really physical,” he said of the Rams, “they’re big — they are tough kids. They have a tough mentality.”
A senior-led group just like the Panthers, the Rams didn’t go down easy, gaining three first downs on their final possession and driving to the Quakertown 39.
But an intentional grounding call backed Pennridge up to its own 45, and an on 2nd-and-26, Balmer ran 14 yards to set up 3rd-and-12 at the Panther 41.
Defensive end James Palush, at the heart of Quakertown’s second-half pressure, sacked Balmer for a nine-yard loss, and then on 4th-and-21, Balmer launched a desperation pass down to the three.
For a second, it looked as though Pennridge’s Iziah Lewis would come up with an amazing catch in tight coverage, but the ball bounced free as he fell to the ground.
It did appear there was contact on the play, but no flags were thrown. Quakertown took over at the 50 and ran out the clock.
The Rams weren’t able to duplicate their first-half success, when three touchdown runs by senior Judens Desrosiers (four, six, one) produced a 21-0 lead.
“It’s a great group of players and I’m still thankful for them,” Hollenbach said. “Even though we couldn’t get the ‘W’ here, I’m definitely thankful, especially for these seniors. They just played their hearts out this whole season.”
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