JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – After last Friday night’s 17-16 loss to Aquinas in the semifinals of the state Class A private school playoffs, the Mount Pisgah Patriots will have a long time to play the “what if” game before the 2014 season kicks off.
The Patriots (12-1) dominated the game statistically and led 16-10 after driving for a go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth period.
But Mount Pisgah missed the extra point and that proved costly. The Fighting Irish (13-0) drove to a game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds on the clock to pull out the victory and advance to this week’s championship game at the Georgia Dome.
The missed extra point try was just one of a sizeable number of plays that could have altered the outcome.
A penalty against the Patriots after time expired in the first half gave Aquinas a field goal opportunity, and Justin Thompson connected from 44 yards to give the Irish a 10-7 halftime lead.
The Patriots easily could have been leading at the half. But after scoring on a 75-yard run on their first play from scrimmage, they had three straight threats halted in Aquinas territory, the first by what turned out to be a 26-yard intentional grounding penalty on first-and-goal from the 10.
Mount Pisgah coach Mike Forester might spend some time second-guessing two decisions that seemed sound at the time. The Patriots settled for a game-tying field goal to start the second half when first-and-goal from the 1-yard line became fourth-and-goal from the 1 due to a holding penalty.
When Aquinas jumped offside on the Patriots’ PAT try in the fourth quarter, Forester said he might have considered going for two due to the rainy conditions that impacted play. But one of his players declined the penalty before he could ponder his options.
“I really felt like we blew some opportunities in the first half,” a rain-soaked Forester said after the game. “We maybe could have gone up by at least seven points at the half, but they went in up by three.”
Aquinas drove 58 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first series, all 12 plays runs by workhorse back Ruben Garnett, and then did absolutely nothing on offense until going 65 yards in 15 plays to end the game.
In between, the Irish gained 43 yards and had two first downs, one on the penalty that allowed them to kick the field goal with no time on the clock on the second period.
The Patriots, meanwhile, moved the ball consistently, mostly stopping themselves.
Mount Pisgah immediately answered the opening drive by Aquinas when running back Browning Dunn turned the left corner and outran the defense for a 75-yard run to tie the game 7-7.
The intentional grounding penalty ended their next opportunity, but the Patriots got the ball back at the Aquinas 42, reaching the 21 before being stopped on fourth-and-inches. Pisgah’s last scoring chance stalled when quarterback Aaron Winchester was sacked on third-and-3 from the Aquinas 39.
It appeared the half would end in a tie, but the Patriots could not cleanly field the slick football after a punt, handing the ball to the Irish at the Mount Pisgah 41. Shingi Chigwere, who had an outstanding game on defense, sacked the Aquinas quarterback on fourth down, but his hand caught the facemask of Liam Welch to give the Irish a first down and an un-timed play, which they turned into a field goal.
“I really chewed out the kids at halftime,” Forester. “Their mood was kind of down. But then we took the opening kickoff of the second half and went down the field.”
The Patriots ran 14 plays and gained 100 yards, twice overcoming holding penalties. They converted a third-and-15 on a 28-yard screen pass from Winchester to Oz Dixon, with Winchester shaking free for a 23-yard gain to the Aquinas 1.
But another holding penalty pushed the Patriots back, and when Winchester was again stopped at the 1 on third down, Forester called a timeout to decide what to do.
“We had not been that good inside the 5, and I felt like we needed the points,” he said.
The Patriots settled for a 19-yard field goal and a 10-10 tie.
Just a few plays later, a torrential downpour hit the field, and neither team did anything offensively until the rain let up a bit in the final period.
The Patriots drove 63 yards on eight running plays to take the lead, with Ben Miller, Dunn and Winchester gaining 10, 12 and 18 yards on first-down runs before Winchester kept for 15 yards and the score.
Given the offensive struggles of Aquinas, the Mount Pisgah six-point lead looked safe, and the Patriots had a chance to get the ball right back when a short kickoff squirted free, giving both teams a chance to fall on it.
The Irish came up with the ball and marched 65 yards on 15 plays, twice converting on fourth down. The first came when the Patriots jumped offside on fourth-and-1. A 5-yard pass from Welch to John Morris tied the game, and Thompson connected on the game-winning kick.
Winchester uncorked a desperation pass on the final play of the game from the Pisgah 45, and got a friendly deflection that sent the ball tantalizingly close to a Patriots receiver, just not close enough.
The Patriots attempted only 11 passes, with Winchester completing five for 65 yards. He rushed for 120 yards on 23 attempts, with Dunn carrying 13 times for 144 yards. Mount Pisgah finished with 282 yards on the ground.
Garnett had 116 yards on 34 carries for the Irish, with Aquinas gaining just 19 yards on eight completions on 12 pass attempts.