Despite playing on the road, turning the ball over twice and being shut out in the second half, the Johnston football team had two chances to finish off Central on Friday night.
But the Panthers went 0-for-2. With an eight-point lead, Johnston failed to stop the Knights’ Carlos Mangum on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line in overtime, and then couldn’t defend the two-point conversion that tied the score.
In double overtime, Central scored first on a run by Mangum and then forced a third Johnston turnover to pull out a dramatic 42-36 victory in a match-up of two of Division II-A’s three undefeated teams.
The Panthers, who didn’t trail the entire game until falling behind in double overtime, head into their bye week with a bad taste in their mouth over what was a huge missed opportunity.
Central improved to 3-0 in the league, while Johnston dropped to 2-1.
“We knew we had to come out and play great, and we couldn’t make any mistakes because they’re just too talented,” Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo said. “We made mistakes. We’re not taking anything away from them, but we just had some breakdowns that we shouldn’t have had.”
Johnston out-gained the Knights 441 to 307 and had six more first downs. But Central just kept coming.
“We were fortunate to get by this game,” Central head coach Peter Rios said. “Johnston is very well-coached, and we’re just happy to get by Johnston.”
The Panthers got the ball first in overtime, and after a two-yard run by Victor Halton, scored on an eight-yard scamper by Evan Hopson. Hopson, who finished with 79 of Johnston’s 348 rush yards, also pounded in the two-point conversion, staking the Panthers to a 36-28 lead.
On Central’s possession, star running back Mike Washington, who battled cramps the whole game, carried the ball on the first three plays and moved it down to the two.
That set up fourth down, where Mangum, on his first carry of the game, powered ahead for the score. On the conversion play, quarterback Kyle Amado found Jose Ortiz on a slant to tie the game at 36.
The Knights started with the ball in double overtime, and scored on their first play when Mangum rumbled 10 yards for his second touchdown in as many carries. The conversion failed, however, leaving Central with only a six-point lead.
On Johnston’s possession, Brenden Pappas lost a yard on first down before the Panthers tried to go to Hopson second down. The handoff exchange between Hopson and quarterback Steve Simone was fumbled, though, and Kwame Ireland recovered it for Central to end the game.
“You take away a few plays here or there and it’s a whole different ball game,” Acciardo said. “That’s football.”
Still, it’s a game that may haunt the Panthers down the line.
They had four rushers with at least 50 yards on the ground – Hopson, Halton, Pappas and Evan Santilli – and led by as many as eight points two separate times.
But there were too many blown opportunities, especially in the second half.
Leading 28-20, the Panthers gave up a 50-yard drive to Central to open the half, capped by a 15-yard Washington run. Washington also caught a pass for the two-point conversion, tying the score at 28.
Johnston looked poised to regain control, though, as it methodically moved down the field from its own 33-yard line on nine consecutive running plays and set up second-and-goal from the one-yard line.
Hopson took the handoff on the ensuing play and bounced it outside, but he was met by Ortiz, who knocked the ball loose. Washington was right there, and he pounced on the fumble just before it went out of bounds, giving the ball back to Central and taking a potential touchdown away from Johnston.
“I thought it was a huge momentum changer,” Rios said. “They don’t score, we come back. This game is a game of momentum. If you can survive the momentum, the wave, then you can come back.”
The Panthers also committed two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the second half, halting drives that could have provided the winning points.
“That’s what bothers me,” Acciardo said. “It wasn’t like big stuff. It was the little stuff – it would not have mattered that much, but if you did it wrong it would matter.”
The first half told a similar story, even if Johnston did lead on the scoreboard.
The Panthers went up 8-0 on their second possession, capped by a dynamic 44-yard run by Hopson. Mark Breton ran in the two-point conversion.
Yet, on the ensuing kickoff, the ball traveled only a few yards and Central’s Edward Pupoh grabbed it and raced 55 yards for a touchdown, immediately killing Johnston’s momentum. Washington was stopped on the conversion, making the score 8-6.
Johnston answered, scoring on a 25-yard run by Pappas on its next drive before missing the conversion, for a 14-6 lead, but it again couldn’t contain the Knights.
In just three plays, Central covered 58 yards, with Washington finishing the job on a darting 12-yard run. Amado hit Micah Woods for the conversion, knotting the score at 14.
Johnston didn’t waste any time reclaiming the lead, going 62 yards on its next drive that ended with a 43-yard fade pass from Simone to Steve Perfetto for a touchdown, and a Pappas run made it 22-14.
The offensive output by the Panthers was one positive to take away, as Central had not allowed a single point in its three games leading up to Friday.
“They shut everyone else out,” Acciardo said. “We put up 36.”
Central scored on its next possession – making it six straight possessions the teams had traded touchdowns – when Washington bounced off Johnston defenders for a 10-yard score. The two-point conversion was no good.
Johnston scored its final points of the half on a touchdown pass from Simone to Jason Cate with 2:47 remaining for a 28-20 lead going into the break.
Washington led all rushers with 245 yards on 29 carries, and he also scored three touchdowns, giving him 16 for the year.
Johnston was led by Halton’s 97 yards and Pappas’s 94.
Simone threw for 93 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
“Hey, what are you going to do?” Acciardo said. “We lost.”
The Panthers will be off this week before returning to action for a big game next week. They will host 2-1 Chariho, on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 1:30 p.m.