If questions lingered still about whether St. Francis de Sales is serious about re-earning respect in the football community, they were answered in the fourth quarter.
Not once. Not twice. But three times.
Needing a win to bolster their postseason outlook and continue the rise of a program that has fallen hard in the past decade, the Knights made stops near the goal line Friday night on Whitmer’s final three offensive series.
This 21-14 win before a bipartisan Glass Bowl crowd signals another step forward second-year coach Chris Hedden, whose Knights stayed within one game of Three Rivers Athletic Conference leader Central Catholic.
St. Francis (5-2, 3-1 TRAC), which entered the night eighth in its region, inched closer to securing its second playoff berth since 2004. The Knights, who won three games a year ago, appear intent on resetting the football hierarchy in the area, given wins this year against Southview, St. John’s, and now the defending Division I state runner-up Panthers.
“I feel like our kids believe in what we’re doing,” said Hedden, the former University of Toledo offensive coordinator. “I believe in our kids, and when you have that going it’s a powerful thing.”
Clinging to a 21-14 lead early in the fourth, the St. Francis defense stiffened. It turned a Whitmer first-and-goal at the 9 into fourth-and-11. Panthers quarterback Matt Winzeler threw incomplete in the corner of the end zone for his favorite red-zone target, Christopher Boykin. The two hooked up on two second-quarter TDs to erase a 14-0 deficit, but this time freshman cornerback Tevin Walker, who stands 10 inches shorter than Boykin, got a hand on the ball.
The next drive St. Francis QB David Nees and running back Lamar Carswell muffed an exchange, and Whitmer (3-4, 2-2) new life at the 15. The threat ended after Winzeler overthrew tight end Andrew Shuherk, who was uncovered in the end zone.
“We put our defense in some tough situations but we came up big when we needed to,” said Nees, who accounted for 88 yards and two TDs on the ground.
Those two stops would be rendered meaningless if St. Francis couldn’t make another one. The Knights, after failing to bleed the clock, punted.
Disaster ensued. First they were penalized 15 yards for a facemask. Then another 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct against someone on the sideline. Whitmer started the drive at St. Francis’ 37.
“Wasn’t really explained to me for what or against who,” Hedden said. “Obviously that was a critical play in the game, but we were able to respond.”
Winzeler found Boykin for 33 yards on first down to bring the Panthers to the 4. The Knights dropped Jamal Bell for a 10-yard loss on third down, setting up a do-or-die fourth-and-14. A fade to Boykin was off the mark.
Winzeler completed 21 of 30 passes for 225 yards and two TDs, both to Boykin, covering 12 and 16 yards. Boykin caught five balls for 88 yards. “We’re right there both times,” Hedden said. “The kid goes up over top of us and makes a play. Not much I can say to our kids. We were in position. When you’re 6-4 and probably have a 36-inch vertical you’re going to make that play.”
Whitmer coach Jerry Bell declined to be interviewed.
Carswell, who lost two fumbles but scored on a 10-yard second-quarter jaunt, had 33 of his 59 rushing yards on the final drive, allowing Nees to take a knee.
“It starts with our defensive staff,” Hedden said. “Coach Materni, the defensive coordinator, did a phenomenal job preparing those kids all week.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.