As Taiwan Deal made his way into the trenches on a handoff during the first quarter of Saturday’s game at St. John’s, a slew of defenders tugged and clawed at the DeMatha tailback. The play appeared dead once the number of tacklers reached five, but as Deal continued to churn his legs, one Cadet after another fell off his body, and he powered his way to a 56-yard run that set up DeMatha’s first touchdown.

The Stags saw their resilience greatly tested by the upstart Cadets, but Deal’s run served as a spark in leading No. 2 DeMatha to a 26-21 victory in its Washington Catholic Athletic Conference opener in Northwest Washington.

“They tackled me in the backfield, but I kept my feet moving, came up out of their tackles and started running,” said Deal, who rushed for 131 yards and two scores. “The key to this game was how we’re built; we’re built for dogfights and we came out and won.”

During a scoreless opening quarter, DeMatha struggled to find a rhythm as the Cadets snuffed out the Stags’ play-action passes and registered their first of five sacks in the game.

St. John’s (3-2, 0-1 WCAC) used its defensive success to take several chances on offense, including a fake field goal that resulted in a first down on a Will Ulmer throw and ultimately, a one-yard rushing touchdown by Maurice Harley.

But thanks to Deal’s big run and 13-yard touchdown on the next play, the Stags found themselves down only 9-7 at halftime.

The Wisconsin recruit continued to find success on the ground in the second half, chewing up yards on short runs that allowed him and fellow senior tailback Mark Allen to score consecutive touchdowns that put the Stags up 20-9.

“His second and third effort is unmatched, and he’s always going to fight for extra yards,” DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks said. “He gained some tough yards for us throughout the game.”

The Stags (4-1, 1-0 WCAC) had to make do without Deal for a stretch late in the game when he rolled his ankle early in the fourth quarter. St. John’s rallied soon after. Ulmer blazed past the Stags defense for a 65-yard touchdown run, and Omar Garcia scored on the next drive to put the Cadets ahead, 21-20.

But the Stags quickly responded, as Lorenzo Harrison stepped in to rush for 45 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. DeMatha’s defense held the Cadets to 16 yards and one first down in the game’s final 11 minutes to secure the win.

“We had to contain Ulmer because he caused us a lot of problems,” Brooks said. “We made some adjustments and anchored down to where I thought we did a better job — not great — but a better job late in the game.”