Panthers outlast Pats in offensive explosion

Johnston Sun Rise ·

Homecoming 2016 will be a day that Johnston’s Kyle Nelson will never forget. Not only did he throw for three touchdowns and make several big defensive plays, but the senior captain was also selected homecoming king at halftime. More importantly, he directed the Panthers to their first win of the season – a 52-36 shootout over a tough Pilgrim team that would just not quit. Nelson has had a rough season thus far, but managed to silence many of his critics with his performance on Saturday afternoon at Polisena Stadium.

“It was a perfect day, I feel blessed,” Nelson said. “I have the heart for playing football, all I want to do is play football.”

Both teams, who are now 1-3 in Division II-A, entered the game needing a victory to keep their playoff chances alive and treated this game as if it were a playoff game.

Johnston had scored only 28 points in its three league games going into the contest, while the Patriots had tallied only 48 points in their previous three league games, but both offenses were in high gear in what turned out to be a physical and emotional game. ”It's always nice to win your homecoming,” said Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo. “It's the biggest game of the year and you have to play like there is no tomorrow.” ”Give all the credit to our boys, we never quit,” said Pilgrim head coach Rob Pacifico. “I have coached some teams where they would have their heads down, but this team kept on fighting.” The Panthers scored just one minute, 29 seconds into the game on an Elijah Burgess 2-yard dive, which was set up by a Nelson to Nassir Vasquez 35-yard pass play. Nelson scrambled for the 2-point conversion and an 8-0 lead. Twenty-three seconds later, the Patriots responded on their first play from scrimmage on a 60-yard halfback option trick play that saw James Baldwin find a wide open Ty Weldon-Martin for six points.

The Panthers would answer just one minute, 48 seconds later on another Burgess touchdown run that was made possible by a Vasquez 45-yard run and a Nelson to Evan Pennacchia 27-yard pass completion.

Johnston increased its lead to 22-6 on Nelson’s first touchdown pass of the game – a 5-yard toss to Pennacchia with Nelson and Vasquez hooking up for the 2-point conversion. Pilgrim stormed back with 19 seconds left in the first quarter as its quarterback James McKay, who also threw for three touchdowns in the game, led his team downfield, connecting with Weldon-Martin for a 25-yard score.

Nate Ferri took a direct snap from the center for the 2-point conversion, as the teams combined for 36 first-quarter points.

A Nelson 55-yard punt pinned the Pats at their own 6-yard line, but that did not bother McKay, as he found Baldwin over the middle for a 65-yard score, cutting the Panther lead to 22-20.

Nelson and Aristides Tejeda connected on a 70-yard bomb to up the Johnston lead to 28-20, but McKay led his team downfield once more with completions to Steven Rosa and Zachary Johnson. It looked as if the Pats were going to score, but the Panthers came up with the biggest defensive play of the game, when Nelson intercepted McKay and returned it 68 yards to the Pats’ 22-yard line.

“We did not have a pick all season and the coaches said that we needed someone to make a big play,” Nelson said.

Johnston turned the pick into points when Nelson and Vasquez hooked up for an 8-yard score, while Burgess fought his way into the end zone for the 2-point conversion as JHS enjoyed a two-score lead at halftime, 36-20.

Nelson was 11-for-17 passing in the game for 217 yards. The Panthers opened their largest lead of the game and season, 24 points, midway through the third quarter on a Tejeda 20-yard bolt with Burgess adding yet another 2. Down 44-20, Pilgrim knew it had to put some points on the board, and it did just one minute, 30 seconds later on a fourth-and-10 gamble from its own 45 that paid off with a McKay to Ferri 55-yard touchdown strike. The duo also converted the 2-point conversion to make it a two-score game with plenty of time left.

When McKay got his hands back on the ball early in the fourth quarter, he would come up big with a third-and-long completion of 27 yards to Ferri. McKay, who threw for over 300 yards in the game, came through with another big play, finding Weldon-Martin on fourth-and-11 for a 23-yard pickup to the Panthers’ 2-yard line. From there, Simon Davis would do the rest with a 2-yard plunge on a play where he fumbled the ball over to JHS, but not before the officials said he broke the plane of the goal line. McKay made it a one-score game with a successful 2-point conversion pass to Sean Cooney. In his only mistake of the game, Nelson's pass was tipped and intercepted by Joshua Morin at the Pats’ 42.

Looking to tie the game, Pilgrim moved the ball to the JHS 24 with a Davis 26-yard run, but the Panther defense would force a turnover on downs with a crucial fourth-and-1 stop.

The Pats would come up with a big stop of their own on defense and would get the ball back with 3:01 left in regulation. McKay was intercepted by Vasquez, though, who ran it back for what looked like a clinching score, but the play was called back on a JHS illegal block in the back. The pick, however, would stand and Ty Harriel would get those six points back on a 42-yard dash, as Nelson made it a two-score game again, scrambling for the 2. Needing two quick scores, McKay tried to make something happen, but the JHS defense would not fold this week, as Nelson nearly intercepted his counterpart again and prevented a big gain with less than a minute to go, which helped preserve a hard-fought JHS win. ”We are still getting used to the jump from Division III, but we are holding our own,” Pacifico said. “The second quarter was fun, but the second half was nip and tuck. We needed to make up some points in the second half, but unfortunately we could not. I am never happy with a loss, but I told the kids I was proud of them. They just keep coming back after it. We need to lick our wounds and get back to work. It is still a learning process.”

Acciardo was pleased with the win, but said his team is still a work in progress.

“We still made some mistakes and had coverage breakdowns, but I am glad we got the win,” Acciardo said. “We played well even though we had some trouble stopping Pilgrim defensively. For us to win, we need everyone clicking on all cylinders. If we can make the playoffs, which is our goal, that would be great for this team. The West Warwick and Moses Brown losses took a lot of the wind out of us to open the season and I hope the Mount Pleasant game does not come back to haunt us.” ”I usually scramble and waste a lot of time, but today I made better and quicker decisions,” Nelson said. “We have to take it one game at a time. We got a taste of victory today and we have to get better and step it up the rest of the way.”

Both the Pats and Panthers will have tough games this Friday night. Pilgrim will host the two-time defending Division II Super Bowl champion Moses Brown at Warwick Vets. The Quakers are the only undefeated team in Division II-A at 5-0 and are coming off a 42-7 win over East Greenwich last week.

Johnston will travel to Westerly to face a tough Bulldog team. West Warwick shut out the Bulldogs, 13-0, last week. Kickoff for both games is at 7 p.m.