READING >> Thirty-six years after last playing football at the former Reading Municipal Stadium, Exeter and Muhlenberg reprised those roles Thursday night.
The name of the stadium has since changed (First Energy Stadium); some of the rules of the game have changed (chiefly, regular-season overtime); heck, even the name of the minor league baseball club has changed slightly (Phillies to Fightin Phils).
What didn’t change was the outcome. Led by freshman quarter Colin Payne, making his varsity debut, Exeter defeated Muhlenberg, 42-6, in the first of six Gridiron Classics to be held at the venerable old ballpark in the next week-plus.
The Eagles beat the Muhls, 12-9, in October, 1982 — the last time the venue hosted football of any kind prior to Thursday night. Governor Mifflin and Reading will take center stage Friday evening.
“This was an unbelievable experience,” Exeter head coach Matt Bauer said. “I’m thrilled for the kids and we’re very pleased to be the first team do it. I’m a little sad it’s over.”
Payne, still just 14 years old and third on the depth chart, was pressed into service when injuries befell starter Kolby Haag (finger) and backup Gavin McCusker (elbow). Most remarkably, perhaps, Payne was not informed that he was starting until Wednesday.
“I was very excited to get the opportunity,” Payne said. “I had no idea. A lot of nerves, a lot of butterflies.”
The pressure of the assignment didn’t appear to faze the young 6-foot, 145-pound signal-caller. Payne completed 12 of 17 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns. He had a third scoring toss, of 58 yards to Joe Rohrbach, wiped out on an illegal shift penalty.
It was a pinch-hit performance worthy of anything Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins or Rhys Hoskins may have pulled off on the diamond in prior times and it left Bauer — a Muhlenberg alum — beaming.
“Colin Payne rose to the challenge,” Bauer said. “Kolby, he could have gone, but we wanted to give his finger another week to heal. We rolled the dice and were successful in doing that. Colin really answered the call tonight. I was very proud of him. … He played above his years.”
Payne credited the opening drive, a 7-play, 72-yard effort that ended with running back Steven Rose going over from 10 yards out, with calming him and boosting confidence. A completed pass to Mason Cambria on the game’s first snap — a deft play call by the head coach — surely helped.
“After that first drive, it went really high,” Payne said of his self-assurance. “It did calm me down. Our (offensive) line did a great job tonight. Best line in he county. They know their job, they know what to do and they were excellent.” Payne’s line kept his jersey clean.
Payne got a big boost from an effective run game. Rose rushed 100 yards on 14 carries, Jeremiah Nixon clocked 86 while Johnny Day chipped in 59. Nixon and Rose each scored twice.
Muhlenberg’s highlight came on its second snap of the game, in response, when quarterback Mason Beerman found wideout Dayvon Youmans near midfield and the latter did the rest, going 75 yards for a score to knot proceedings. Both teams missed their respective PATs, leaving the score at 6-all.
But from there, it was all downhill for the Muhls (0-5, 0-2 Berks 1). Exeter’s defense held Beerman to a 5 of 15 passing performance for 85 yards (75 of those on the toss to Youmans) and stuffed the run game to a tune of 53 yards on 24 totes.
“There was a coverage breakdown there (on Muhlenberg’s TD pass), but I thought our defense played well and responded the rest of the night,” Bauer said.
Payne directed another drive down to the Muhlenberg 3 but the foray was snuffed out by a fumble, one of two lost by the Eagles.
But Exeter got the ball back when Anthony Wise picked off, in single coverage on the corner, picked off Beerman at the Muhls’ 25. seven plays later, Payne found Rohrbach in the end on a 10-yard fade for lead.
The PAT was blocked, a second straight failed conversion, but Exeter got both points back when Muhlenberg snapped the football through the end zone for a safety on a punt attempt during the final play of the first quarter.
The Eagles (3-2, 1-0) planted three touchdowns in the second quarter to take command: A Nixon 5-yard rumble to cap a nine-play, 73-yard march; Nixon again, from 3, on a quick 5-play, 72-yard drive; and Alex Javier’s 26-yarder on a slant route with 16 seconds to go in the first half, a score that made it 35-6.
Rose scored from five yards out, on Exeter’s initial second-half possession, to stretch the lead to 42-6 and set the mercy clock in motion.
Exeter 42, Muhlenberg 6
At First Energy Stadium, Reading
Muhlenberg – 6 0 0 0 — 6
Exeter – 14 21 7 0 — 42
E – Steven Rose 10 run (kick failed), 10:15
M – Dayvon Youmans 75 pass from Mason Beerman (kick blocked), 9:19
E – Joe Rohrbach 10 pass from Colin Payne (kick blocked), 1:53
E – safety (punt snap through end zone), 0:00
E – Jeremiah Nixon 5 run (Sean Henry kick), 7:11
E – Nixon 3 run (Henry kick), 5:21
E – Alex Javier 26 pass from Payne (Henry kick), :16
E – Rose 5 run (Henry kick), 8:04
Exeter 22, Muhlenberg 8
Exeter 41-245, Muhlenberg 24-53
Exeter 12-17-175, Muhlenberg 5-15-85-1
Exeter 420, Muhlenberg 138
Exeter 2-2, Muhlenberg 2-0
Exeter 6-46, Muhlenberg 8-48
Exeter 1-17.0, Muhlenberg 5-29.8
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