Friday night at Howard, No. 13 Atholton spent the first 12 minutes digging a hole for itself, and the next 36 climbing back out of it.
After falling behind, 21-0 in a disastrous first quarter, the Raiders (3-0) managed to outscore the previously undefeated Lions, 35-13, the rest of the way, eventually winning on a failed 2-point conversion by Howard (2-1) with 12 seconds left.
"It's a game of inches and we came up short, but it was a great game," said Howard quarterback Austin Blair, who was downed less than half a yard from the goal line on the decisive conversion attempt. "I faked it to Michael [Anderson]. I ran and saw two guys, tried to get in between them and reached the ball over."
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Howard High School, 8700 Old Annapolis Rd, Ellicott City, MD 21043, USA
The play was made possible by a 36-yard pass from Blair to Anderson on 4th and 13 from their own 23-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Then, on 3rd and 10 from just inside the 30 with only 30 seconds left, Blair got the ball to David Committee inside the five, setting up an Anderson touchdown run two plays later, and the ensuing two-point conversion attempt.
Blair also tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Walker and ran for a TD on the last play of the second quarter to put the Lions ahead 28-14 at halftime.
Atholton senior quarterback Luke Casey, who transferred from Mount St. Joseph after last season, fumbled the ball away on Atholton's first play from scrimmage. But the captain eventually tied the game with a 30-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion late in the third quarter.
"We made a couple of early mistakes and at halftime we realized that we were driving on them and they've got a hell of a defense," Casey said. "But we knew what we could do. Once we figured out what was working we got into our rhythm and we said we're going to stick to that rhythm."
Casey had two rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown, to Keyon Pinnock (5 catches, 59 yards), on 4th and 6 from the 17 on the first drive of the third quarter.
Casey finished with 115 rushing yards and 176 passing yards, while Blair had 81 rushing and 100 passing.
Howard senior Michael Anderson (25 carries, 177 yards) scored three rushing touchdowns, including a 38-yarder in the first quarter. But while Anderson gained 144 yards in the first half, the Raiders held the Lions to only 51 rushing yards in the second half, including Anderson's 33.
"We thought we could score some points," Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt said. "But we couldn't stop them and then they kind of turned the tide with the [first quarter fumble recovery], so we thought we were in trouble, but we didn't panic. Defensively, the adjustments in the second half were excellent. ... It's exciting, it's going to be a wild ride."
Atholton junior linebacker Cody Stolar finished with ten tackles and intercepted a pass late in the third quarter that set up Casey's game tying touchdown. Brandon Anthony also made ten tackles, and Pat Mullens led the Raiders with 11. Mullens (7 catches, 80 yards) also scored what proved to be the winning touchdown, on a shovel pass from Casey with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
Isaac Murray (73 yards) scored Atholton's first touchdown, on a 45-yard run early in the second quarter.
Atholton has outscored its opponents by a total of just six points this season, including an overtime win over Wilde Lake in their opener. But the Raiders are now one of three undefeated teams left in the Howard County league, along with Mt. Hebron and River Hill, the defending 3A state champion.
"We've got a lot of heart. We're playing good teams and that's why it's close but when we come out and play with that much energy and that much heart, there's not much that can stop us," Casey said. "I just love this team."
Atholton and River Hill do not play this season. The Raiders will visit Mount Hebron on Oct. 12.
Last year Atholton defeated Howard, 28-7, in week two, triggering a 10-game win streak which ended with a 21-12 loss to River Hill in the 3A East regional championship game.
No. 13 Atholton 35, Howard 34
A (3-0) 0 14 14 7 - 35
Ho (2-1) 21 7 0 6 - 34
Ho: Anderson 38 run (Stewart kick), 9:55. [0-7]
Ho: Walker 30 pass from Blair (Stewart kick), 7:41. [0-14]
Ho: Anderson 1 run (Stewart kick), :02. [0-21]