They never wavered.
When things were going wrong, when Huntingdon built a 20-point lead in the second half, the LaGrange College Panthers stayed true to the belief that they weren’t done, that they could still find a way to get it done.
“We had to believe we were going to win,” said Connor McNamee, a junior linebacker. “The belief from everybody just came out on the field. You saw it tonight. You saw it in the second half.”
After falling behind 37-17 late in the third quarter, the Panthers scored touchdowns on their final four possessions to pull off a dramatic 44-40 victory over their USA South rival from Alabama.
The Panthers (3-3, 3-1 in USA South) took the lead on Shaqualm McCoy’s 2-yard touchdown run with less than a minute left, and the game ended when Huntingdon quarterback Ryne Taylor was sacked by Jordan Chambers.
The Panthers had the win, and the players and coaches stormed the field for a well-deserved celebration.
The Panthers came into the game with a 1-6 record against the Hawks dating back to 2006, and they’d lost the past two games in blowout fashion.
For much of Saturday’s game, it looked like Huntingdon was headed for another victory in the series, but the Panthers outscored the Hawks 27-3 down the stretch to pull off the epic win.
“We knew we could beat this team,” said wide receiver Marsalis Jackson, who aided in the comeback with some key catches, including a 66-yard touchdown. “We just had to keep fighting, and not give up.”
Everyone on the field did what they had to do to contribute to the comeback, according to head coach Todd Mooney.
“The defense stood up, the offense stood up, the special teams stood up,” Mooney said. “From a team win standpoint, I couldn’t be more proud of those guys. They played their rear ends off. I couldn’t be more proud of my staff. It was just awesome.”
After the defense forced a punt, the Panthers got the ball for the final time at their own 37-yard line with 2:05 remaining.
Freshman wide receiver Ervens Oge said no one in the huddle had any doubt.
“As soon as we got the ball, we knew we were going to punch it in,” Oge said. “All the momentum was on our side. We knew what was going to happen.”
It didn’t take the Panthers long to get in scoring position, with quarterback Graham Craig finding Jackson for a 44-yard completion.
That play nearly ended in disaster when Jackson fumbled the ball, but offensive lineman Stephen Stinchcomb was on the spot with the recovery.
Two plays later, McCoy scored from two yards out, and the Panthers had the 44-40 lead after the two-point conversion attempt failed.
The Scots started their final possession at their own 5-yard line because of a penalty on the kickoff, and they got it to the 39-yard line on a fourth-down completion from Taylor to Taylor Belsterling.
After Taylor spiked the ball, he threw an incompletion on second down, and he was sacked by Chambers on third down, and the clock ran out.
“That confidence that built throughout the second half, I had no doubt we were going to score, and I had no doubt we were going to stop them,” Mooney said. “We got to that point, and I could see it in the players’ faces. They were determined.”
There’s no question, though, that the situation was desperate when Huntingdon took advantage of a LaGrange College turnover and scored on a 52-yard pass from Taylor to Belsterling with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter to build that 20-point lead.
The Panthers needed something dramatic to turn the tide, and they got it on the very next play from scrimmage, with Craig finding Jackson for the 66-yard touchdown.
Suddenly what was a 20-point lead for Huntingdon was down to 13 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Hawks responded with a 65-yard drive after the Panther touchdown, but they were kept out of the end zone, and the field goal made it a 40-24 game with 12:17 remaining.
Despite the big deficit, Jackson said the team was confident it could score enough points to win it.
“We can score anytime I feel like,” Jackson said. “As long as we’re clicking, we can score against anybody.”
The Panthers proved that on their ensuing possession when they went 76 yards in eight plays, with Craig finding Oge for a 6-yard scoring pass.
Oge also caught the two-point conversion pass from Craig, and the Hawks’ lead was down to 40-32 with 9:44 remaining.
That drive was kept alive by a 15-yard completion to Griffin Roelle on fourth-and-six from the Hawks’ 21-yard line.
While the offense was clicking, the key was going to be LaGrange College’s defense.
As long as the Hawks kept driving and putting points on the board, they were going to win the game.
If the Panthers were going to prevail, the defense was going to have to come up with some stops.
“We knew we had to stop them and get the ball back any way possible,” McNamee said.
The defense responded.
On the Hawks’ next possession, defensive lineman Klay Cranford came up with the interception, and the Panthers had the ball at their own 38-yard line.
On third-and-five, Craig hit Josh Hardrick for a 40-yard completion, and two plays later, Craig found Roelle for a 12-yard touchdown.
Needing a two-point conversion to tie it, Craig’s pass fell incomplete, and the Hawks were clinging to a 40-38 lead with 5:13 remaining.
Once again the LaGrange College defense came through.
The Hawks picked up one first down, but they were forced to punt when Taylor Hughes was sacked on third down by Justin McIntyre.
The 34-yard punt gave the Panthers the ball at their own 37-yard line, and they went to work, driving 66 yards in a little more than a minute for the go-ahead score.
“Everything we talked about needing to have happen, they found a way to get it done,” Mooney said.
In the first half, LaGrange College’s usually potent offense had a difficult time getting on track.
The Panthers got a 42-yard field goal from Will Jeffcoat to take an early 3-0 lead, but the Hawks scored the next 20 points to go up by 17.
The Panthers scored their lone first-half touchdown on a 19-yard completion from Craig to McCoy with 2:03 left in the second quarter, but the Hawks came right back with a touchdown of their own, and they were up 27-10 at the half.
“We didn’t get started as fast as I hoped we could, and we got ourselves into a little bit of a hole,” Mooney said. “I went into halftime, and they knew. They were ready. I didn’t have to say too much to them.”
The Panthers got within 10 with 6:31 left in the third quarter on a 1-yard completion from Craig to Jackson to cap an 11-play, 69-yard drive.
The Hawks, scored the next 10 points to extend the lead to 20, and they appeared to have things in control, but the Panthers scored on the touchdown pass from Craig to Jackson with 26 seconds left in the third quarter, and the comeback was on.
Craig had a brilliant game for the Panthers, completing 24-of-36 passes for 420 yards and five touchdowns.
Jackson had five catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and Roelle was a busy man with 10 catches and a touchdown.
Oge and McCoy also had scoring catches, and McCoy had a touchdown run to go along with 87 yards on the ground.
All-American senior linebacker Andre Carter had a game-high 13 tackles, and Chambers had 12 tackles, including three for loss with two sacks.