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Rustin’s halftime adjustments drop Penn Wood from unbeatens

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WESTTOWN — Yes, Penn Wood dominated the first half. And even the final statistics tell a completely different story than the scoreboard.

But on Friday evening, West Chester Rustin bucked the numbers, staged a huge second-half comeback and knocked the Patriots from the ranks of the unbeaten. The final score was 43-28, and the Golden Knights rolled up 35 second-half points to get it done.

“It’s a huge confidence booster for us,” said senior runner Michael Covert.

“We’ve played in a lot of big games in the history of this school, and this was another big one where we rose to the occasion,” added coach Mike St. Clair.

With a demoralizing setback to West Chester East in the rearview mirror, it was a big turnaround for the Golden Knights (3-1). For Penn Wood (4-1), it was definitely one that got away.

“I think we left a lot on the field in the first half,” Patriots head coach Ato Troop said. “But I have to give it to Rustin. They came out in the second half and wanted it more than we did. We can still achieve all of our goals. It’s nice to have a perfect record but at the same time you can learn from a loss.”

There were times in the opening half where it looked like Penn Wood was on a verge of blowing out the Knights. But they hung on, made some adjustments at the half and outgained the Patriots 202-100 in total offense in the second half, and outscored them by 23.

“I think they had 30 plays in the first quarter,” St. Clair said. “(Penn Wood) had us on our heels, but we hung in there. We bent but we didn’t break. The game could have been over at halftime.”

Things turned quickly in the third quarter as Rustin put 14 quick points on the board thanks to two big setups: A 40-yard kickoff return by Collin Hurley and then a minus-10 yard punt by the Patriots. It gave Rustin its first lead and altered momentum.

“It was very quiet in the locker room,” said Rustin offensive star Nick Madonna. “We kept a lot of the emotion inside, but then we let it out in the second half. Coach (St. Clair) really laid into us and challenged our heart. I don’t know, something just happened in the locker room.”

Penn Wood and splendid quarterback Desman Johnson came right back to regain the lead, 22-21, with his second scrambling TD. But the Knights took it back for good when Covert scored on a 48-yard run.

Moments later, Hurley forced a fumble deep in Penn Wood territory, and then Madonna found the end zone on a 19-yard end around to make it 36-22.

The Patriots staged one last march that covered 80 yards and included a pair of fourth-down conversions, ending with Johnson’s second scoring toss of the day — this time to Elijah Gleplay — with 8:31 remaining. But Rustin closed it out when fullback Owen Walsh scored his second TD with just over six minutes left.

Johnson threw for 262 yards, but he misfired on his last six attempts. The Knights sacked him five times and limited him to zero yards on the ground.

“We’ve been down before, but it was at home and they responded differently,” Troop said of his team, who played on the road for the first time all season. “We have to learn from this.”

Penn Wood dominated the first two quarters half in just about every statistical way. Clinging to a one point lead, the Patriots lightened the burden with a clutch 82-yard drive that culminated with a final minute TD and two-point conversion, and a 16-7 halftime lead.

The slippery Johnson broke several tackles and covered the final five yards on a scramble, and then he made it 16-7 with a conversion pass to Gleplay with just 15 seconds to spare.

Johnson was red hot from the start, connecting on all four of his passes for 65 yards and a touchdown to Tayshon Harmon on the opening possession. He then connected with Kennedy Poles for the conversion.

The Pats then marched 65 yards on their next series, only to turn it over on downs. Then Knights, who did not have a first down in the opening quarter, got a break early in the second when Gabe Walsh forced a fumble while sacking Johnson and Rustin’s Matt Montgomery pounced on the loose ball.

And when Nick Madonna rambled 48 yards on the Knight’s only big play of the half, it set up an eight-yard scoring run by Owen Walsh.

“If we were up 22-7 at the half instead of 16-7, it would have been a different ballgame,” Troop said. “But we were up and let it go. It’s on us.”

The Pats had the edge in first downs (25-14) and total yards (345-285), but it wasn’t enough to change the outcome. Rustin completed just two passes for a mere 26 yards, but came up with some big plays on defense and finished with 259 yards on the ground.

“We had to get back to how we play — power football — that’s how we do it,” Covert said.

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