“I still have to catch my breath.”
Those were just some of the words that were used to describe the last-second, come-from-behind victory by the Sweet Home Panthers over the Cheektowaga Warriors on Friday night.
It was a win that didn’t come easy, as the Panthers had to fight tooth and nail with the top-ranked small school in Western New York virtually all game long to come out on top.
“These guys played their hearts out all game long, up until the very end,” Panthers coach Rich Lowe said. “We let up those three scores in the first half that we shouldn’t have done. We told the guys – if you take those things away, we’d be dominating this game.
“In the second half, we stepped up the pressure on their quarterback and kept him contained. That was huge.”
The fireworks started early as the Warriors took the opening kickoff more than 90 yards to give their offense good field position. A two-yard touchdown pass from KeShone Beal to Michael Gray III put them on the scoreboard first.
On the Panthers’ first drive of the game, Maurice Robertson was quickly intercepted by Seth Connor, leading to a touchdown pass from Beal to Jaquan Pugh, giving the Warriors a 15-0 lead and whipping the Warrior faithful into a frenzy.
Robertson wouldn’t let the crowd stay too high for long, however. A short while later, he scored while keep the ball on a read-option to put the Panthers back into the game. Nearly two minutes later, Robertson scored again on another quarterback keeper from four yards out to make the score 16-15 in favor of Sweet Home.
The Warriors answered back on a 60-yard touchdown pass to Keon White, and then the Panthers scored again with another touchdown pass of their own – this time to Taivon Martin from 38 yards.
The shootout continued when Beal scored on a run of his own from three yards away. After the Panthers failed to capitalize on their next drive, the Warriors then made a critcal error.
Deep in their own territory, a high snap – which was at least the fifth of the night by Cheektowaga – was recovered by the Panthers’ Robert Giancarlo for a touchdown to pull them within one and to end the half.
“We just didn’t make the plays that we needed to win – like that one, for example,” Warriors coach Mike Fatta said. “We all made mistakes throughout the game though, and that’s what cost us.”
Not wanting to rest on his laurels after the defensive touchdown, Lowe noted that the Panthers made a few adjustments at halftime in order to better their fortunes.
“We made sure that the guys were aligned right, switched a few things up with our pass-protections, and we also decided to use a couple of blitz packages that we were saving for tonight,” Lowe said. “Our stunt packages, in particular, were fantastic, and led to a couple of tackles for losses and sacks.”
Those adjustments came in handy, as the Warriors, who rolled up a ton of yardage on the Panthers in the first half, couldn’t quite match their prior production in the second.
As the defense did its part, the Panthers’ offense kicked back into gear. Joe Torrillo stepped in for Robertson late in the third quarter and tossed a 79-yard strike to Eric Johnson to make the score 34-29. However, nearly a full quarter later, Beal answered back with his second rushing touchdown of the night to give the lead to Cheektowaga.
When the Panthers’ offense took the field with slightly more than two minutes to go, they went to work. Marching down the field, Robertson, who came back in, was knocked out of the game for good, allowing Torrillo another crack at the Warriors’ defense.
A clutch throw on fourth-and-four to Dylan McDuffie allowed the Panthers to keep the game alive, and then Torrillo delivered the game-winning pass to McDuffie from 25 yards away to make the score 40-35 with 21 seconds left.
“When Torrillo came off the bench, he gave a lights-out performance,” Lowe said. “He really stepped up big time.”
“I just ran a post route, and I didn’t see any safeties in the middle of the field,” McDuffie said. “I just caught it and turned upfield. It was a great throw by Joe.”
The Panthers have Kenmore West up next on their schedule, and Lowe knew that it will be a slugfest with a traditional powerhouse like the Blue Devils.
“They’re a power-running football team, and they love to use the wishbone and just slam it down your throat,” Lowe said. “We’ll be ready for the challenge.”