MARPLE >> Cardinal O’Hara played like a team with nothing to lose in the first half against undefeated Neumann-Goretti.
Unfortunately, they played like a team afraid to lose in the second half, and ended up doing just that.
The Lions, looking to pull a huge upset, coughed up a two-touchdown lead in the second half and dropped a 22-21 heartbreaker to the Saints.
“We played like we had to hang on and survive in the second half,” O’Hara coach BJ Hogan said. “We should have come out in the second half and finished what we started.”
What they started was an entertaining 13-point halftime lead that was full of trick plays, misdirection and deception that left Neumann-Goretti players scratching their heads.
“I’m proud of my family,” Lions running back Taseer Jones said. “We came out here and we could have rolled over, but we didn’t we fought and we battled and we played a great game. It’s a shame we had to lose, but we can take this into next week.”
O’Hara fell victim to a Saints team that was bigger, stronger and faster, full of players who are headed to big-time college programs.
It’s not every day that you have to try to run the ball into the teeth of a defense with an Alabama recruit like Christian Barmore waiting for you. Nor is it every day that you have to try and stop a running back running behind 6-8, 340-pound guard Justin Johnson, who is headed to University of Oregon.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Neumann-Goretti out-gained the Lions 325-152. Nor should it be a shock that the Saints pounded out 313 yards on the ground while limiting the Lions to 30.
Yet despite the lopsided numbers, O’Hara led the game until there was 5:50 to play.
That was because of an excellent gameplan that confounded the Saints (7-0, 5-0), especially in the second quarter.
Trailing 8-0, Hogan reached into his bag of tricks and called for a halfback pass that turned out to be a home run.
Jones connected with Justin Santilla for 52 yards to trim Neumann-Goretti’s lead to one.
Then,after a curious decision by Saints’ coach Albie Crosby to go for it on fourth-and-7 from his 33, Hogan dialed up the halfback pass again — for a 27-yard hookup between Jones and Santilla. And then he did it once more three plays later — this time with Jones lined up as a single set back and quarterback Luke Sprague standing behind the guard as if he was changing the play, only to snap the ball directly to Jones, who threw to his quarterback for a six-yard score.
“Those plays are in the playbook, but we haven’t called them at all this year,” Jones said. “Good job by our coach to bring them out tonight because they all worked.”
Hogan said it wasn’t specifically part of the game plan coming into the contest, but they did notice how aggressive the Saints were in certain sets, and when he saw that continuing in the first quarter, he thought it would be a good time to roll out the trickery.
And he wasn’t done.
Kicker Kevin Calamita was practicing onside kicks and squib kicks for a good 20 minutes before the game began.
After the Lions (6-2, 3-2) took the lead 14-8, Calamita executed a good squib that bounced in and out of the hands of Jaron Macon and then squirted several yards downfield before the Lions recovered it at the Saints’ 20-yard line.
They got to the seven yard-line when another fancy play — a fake jet sweep, middle screen shuttle pass was executed with Sprague connecting with Chris Kirby for a score and a 21-8 lead.
But the second half was a different story.
Chris Wells rumbled 50 yards on the first offensive play of the second half for Neumann-Goretti, and a two-point conversion by Leddie Brown trimmed O’Hara’s lead to 21-16.
The Lions had great field position later in the third period but fumbled the ball back to the Saints. A combination of good punting by Santilla and a slew of big-yardage penalties by Neumann-Goretti allowed O’Hara to continue to win the field position battle for a while.
But then the Lions took two costly penalties of their own and had a snap from center sail over Jones’ head in another wildcat formation play and the field position battle shifted.
The Saints ran the next 11 plays right behind Johnson, with Brown scoring from nine yards out to give Neumann-Goretti a one-point lead.
On the drive, Santilla hurt his right knee and had to be removed from the game and placed into a large leg brace.
When O’Hara got the ball back, the offense missed Santilla and gave the ball right back to the Saints after a three-and-out.
They hoped to get the ball back, but nine more runs up the middle behind Johnson allowed Neumann-Goretti to milk the clock and hold on to the win.
“I feel bad for our players because if we could have pulled this out, we would have been playing for the championship next week against West Catholic,” Hogan said. “But they have so many different BCS-level players, they just wore us down in the end.”
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