Kwadwo Diawuo isn’t afraid to admit it – he thought the game was over. And who could blame the Mount Vernon senior? After the Majors squandered a 16-point lead and failed to convert on a fourth down with less than two minutes left, Herndon seemingly only needed to run down the clock to hang on for the win in Friday’s season opener.
“I thought the only way we were going to win at that point is with God’s help,” Diawuo said.
What transpired next could be described as miraculous. After Herndon tried to surprise Mount Vernon with a third-down pass, Diawuo intercepted the ball. Two plays later, Darko Stansic kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired to give Mount Vernon an improbable, 19-17, win on the road.
“It was like divine intervention the way it happened,” Majors Coach Barry Wells said. “You can imagine my hair was turning white.”
The fact that Mount Vernon (1-1) needed last-minute heroics proved just as implausible after the Majors went up 16-0 in the first half. Despite playing without top running back Carlton Griffith, who was out with a knee injury but is expected to return this week, the Majors found success behind Diawuo, who rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown.
But two second-half fumbles resulted in two Herndon touchdowns and a 17-16 deficit in the final minutes. Facing a fourth-and-2 near the Herndon 25-yard line, Wells elected to go for it rather than kick the field goal. The Hornets busted through the line and stuffed Diawuo, sending the home crowd into a frenzy and the Majors into a world of doubt.
After Herndon ran two rushing plays, Diawuo noticed a change in the Hornets’ third-down formation.
“They lined up in twins with two receivers and their fullback wasn’t in the game, which kind of surprised me because I knew then they were going to pass,” Diawuo said. “So I decided I was either going to take a chance or take the loss.”
Diawuo took the chance, jumping the route on a screen play and snagging the interception for a seven-yard return. But Mount Vernon wasn’t in the clear yet.
Wells’s plan was to run two plays, but a mix-up in personnel forced him to use his last timeout before the Majors could run their first play. After spiking the ball, Stansic, who squeezed in a few warm-up kicks following the interception, ran out for the kick.
A high snap caused him to pause briefly before following through for the game-winning field goal. The victory led many players to cry tears of joy and after watching film of the final play, Stansic found himself even more flabbergasted.
“I looked at the tape later and saw there were like three guys in my face but I had no idea because I had put my head down and just kicked it,” Stansic said. “Our holder and quarterback Brandon Maturey said afterward that if I looked up, I would have missed and he almost didn’t put the ball down because of the guys running at us. It was that type of game, and we just never gave up.”
For about the first 45 minutes of Washington-Lee’s season opener at McLean on Friday, the Generals’ special teams unit was anything but speciall, leaving Coach Josh Shapiro a bit unnverved during the game’s waning moments.
Before McLean lined up for a 39-yard field goal attempt to tie the game on the final play, the game had featured three safeties, two missed field goals and two failed extra points. But with one strong push that caused McLean’s kick to deflect off of one of its own players, Washington-Lee escaped with a 14-11 win.
“We had a lot of miscues and fought through a lot of adversity, but we realized that no matter what happens, we have to do whatever it takes and keep battling,” Shapiro said. “It wasn’t always pretty, but we’ll take it.”
Following a 15-minute delay due to the late arrival of the referees, the troubles for Washington-Lee began when it was pinned back on its own 1-yard line on a punt, leading to a first-quarter safety.
Two quarters later, the Generals saw their 6-2 lead vanish in a matter of minutes. First, their punt attempt sailed over and behind the kicker’s head, resulting in another safety. On the ensuing McLean possession, the Highlanders scored on a long run to go up 11-6.
The Generals’ fortune appeared to turn in the right direction in the final period. After forcing a McLean safety, Washington-Lee quarterback Sam Appel connected with Noah Harrington for a 40-yard touchdown to take a 14-11 lead.
With about two minutes left, the Generals were forced to punt. Shapiro considered putting a safety behind the punter in case of another backwards kick. Instead, his punter boomed the ball deep into McLean territory, pitting the Highlanders in what seemed like a tough predicament.
“We were in our victory or prevent defense, but McLean executed the two-minute drill like the ’86 Broncos and drove all the way downfield,” Shapiro said with a laugh. “Before fourth down, I called time out and put two guys back deep just in case they ran a fake field goal.”
But as was the case on the Washington-Lee punt, the precautionary measure wasn’t needed, thanks to strong penetration by the General rushers.
“I usually tell the guys that each game represents a chapter and a novel is published around Week 10 of the season,” Shapiro said. “But I told them this game is a novel in and of itself. It was physical, a lot of wild plays but we pulled it out.”
For as unique as the book on this game was, it continues a familiar storyline between these two teams. In their eight meetings since 2004, seven games have been decided by seven points or less, with the last two outcomes yielding a combined margin of three points.