Howard football overcomes four turnovers to beat Sherwood, 20-18, in playoff opener

So much happened in Howard football’s 20-18 win over Sherwood that the Lions were not at all used to after an undefeated regular season.

They committed four turnovers, which junior running back Devin Dawkins said matched their total from the previous 10 games combined. And after outscoring their opponents by more than 30 points per game over that span, they found themselves in a 9-7 halftime hole on their home turf.

But after intermission, with a fourth-down stuff providing the spark, No. 2 seeded Howard found enough offense and stopped senior quarterback Michael Mbony when it mattered most to hold on for a two-point victory.

In surviving, the Lions will travel to top-seeded Paint Branch next week for a chance to win their fourth consecutive 4A North regional championship.

“I told the guys at halftime that championship teams always face adversity and need to respond to it,” coach Ross Hannon said. “I thought we did; down, 9-7 — first time we’ve been down all season at the half. Came back out, and we got Devin loose a little bit in the run game.”

Dawkins, as he’s been the past two seasons, served as Howard’s offensive backbone. He rushed for 138 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns, much of which came after his kickoff return touchdown following Sherwood’s first score late in the first quarter. In the second half alone, he gained 85 yards while adding touchdowns from 5 and 11 yards out.

He also put together a solid first half (12 carries for 53 yards), but Howard’s passing ineptitude overshadowed that production. The Lions punted on their first two possessions. And while two first downs set up the Lions at Sherwood’s 25-yard line on their next drive, quarterback Robby Porter proceeded to throw an interception inside the red zone.

Junior Christian Webb made the interception and fumbled around the 40-yard line, but fellow defensive back Troy Allen picked up the loose ball and took it the distance, putting Sherwood (8-3) up 6-0.

Dawkins returned the ensuing kickoff about 80 yards for a touchdown, but those were the only points Howard could manage in the first half, which included an Anthony Reid fumble and a backwards pass that the Warriors recovered.

“People’s minds weren’t right going into the game,” Dawkins said. “But I think they retracted their steps in the second half. They picked it up.”

Still, Sherwood looked poise to extend its lead early in the second half behind Mbony. Bottled up for most of the contest, Mbony drove his team into Howard territory in each of its first two possessions. When the second drive eventually stalled, Sherwood was faced with a short fourth-down try at the 30-yard line late in the third quarter.

Instead of trying to pin the Lions deep in their own end, the Warriors elected to go for it and failed.

“I felt like we could get it,” coach Chris Grier said. “We had some momentum going, and I felt like the offense needed to keep the ball. When I was talking to the guys in the headsets, we were all saying go for it, so we were all on the same page.”

Given Howard’s depth, Grier feared giving its offense the ball back. He said his team has seven or eight two-way starters and began to tire out as the game wore on.

But the Lions made a much-seeded stop, and took over the game from there. Inserting senior Robert Agbai at running back, they marched down to the 5-yard line before Dawkins punched in the go-ahead score. A Mbony fumble set up Howard’s next possession inside the 40-yard line, leaving Agbai and Dawkins to do the rest. With 10 minutes, 37 seconds left in the game, Dawkins’ touchdown put his team up, 20-9.

The game appeared all but over until Howard seemingly tried to give it away. Mbony, who finished with 153 total yards, got his team in field goal range with about two minutes to play. The successful kick drew the Warriors within a touchdown.

Then Sherwood recovered a botched handoff from Porter to Dawkins and easily drove down the field for another score. After Mbony’s 24-yard rushing touchdown — he finished with 127 yards on 33 carries — all the Warriors needed to do was convert the two-point conversion to tie the game.

But Howard, in danger of possibly going to overtime, got one last stop by forcing an incompletion on its final defensive play.

It wasn’t pretty, much like the rest of the Lions’ night, but it was enough for the co-county champions to keep their season alive and remain undefeated.

“We rose to the occasion a little bit with the adversity and the turnovers,” Hannon said. “We were able to overcome that, and hey, hopefully maybe that’s behind us and we’ll get moving forward.”

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