In a topsy-turvy contest filled with game-changing big plays and clutch offensive drives, Catonsville's most satisfying play was a kneel down with the Comets leading Paint Branch in the first round Class 4A North Region playoff game.
The Comets most valuable drive ended without them scoring a point.
Quarterback Aaron Jones knelt down at the Paint Branch 2-yard line for the final time after a 16-play drive that ate up the final 7:37 and the unbeaten Comets (11-0) held on for a 30-28 victory over the Panthers (9-2).
The victory advanced the second-seeded Comets to the regional championship game next weekend at top-seeded Poly (11-0), a 50-21 winner over Perry Hall.
"It was the most exciting game I've ever been involved in," Catonsville coach Rich Hambor said. "I was really proud of the way the Catonsville community turned out tonight."
Well over 2,000 fans filled up the stands and hillside and were treated to a thrilling contest.
"It feels great, besides the pain, I feel great," said junior running back DeAndre Lane, who rushed for 187 yards on 43 carries and scored three touchdowns. "I'm really sore, man."
Not half as battered as the Paint Branch defensive line that allowed the Comets 262 rushing yards and watched them chew up clock to keep the potent Panther offense off the field.
"I don't feel like they wore us down," Paint Branch coach Michael Nesmith said. "I just feel like they executed. They weren't big gaping holes, but their back (Lane) was very good at finding the creases."
Those creases came courtesy of a cohesive offensive line that included center Nathan Reeves, guards Jon Reymann and Brandon Dixon, tackles Travis Davis and Antoine Wright and tight end Julian Jones.
"Even though we've had many games this year where we've been explosive, we haven't had to pound it down the field," Hambor said. "Those linemen have been taught the grind-it-out style for four years and if they are going to take away the big play, then we are going to do it."
Although Paint Branch shut down the big plays on offense, they allowed some by the Comet defense and special teams.
The first came after Paint Branch built a 9-0 lead following a blocked punt that led to a 24-yard touchdown pass from David Smith to Ortiz Jones and a fumble on the third play of Catonsville's next possession that led to a 22-yard field goal by Sam Stewart.
With 5:29 remaining in the first quarter, Julian Jones pressured quarterback Smith and his errant pass soared into the flat where Joe Tebo intercepted and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown.
Eric Medinger's extra point made it 9-7.
"I couldn't see the quarterback at all," Tebo said. "I just saw the ball come right up like a lob and I just caught it in my stomach and started running."
Interior lineman Wright helped Jones get to the quarterback early on the play.
"I just told Julian 'I know you are faster than me, so I'm going to take the big dude and you go around and make it happen,' " Wright said. "He gave me a look, like 'I got you,' then after that, all I saw was two big people in my face, then I saw Tebo. It was the spark we were looking for."
If that was the spark, the next key defensive play was a flaming inferno.
Leading 10-9, after Medinger capped a 13-play 60-yard drive with a 30-yard field goal with 10:28 left in the second quarter, linebacker Joseth Hylton leveled a Panther runner and forced a fumble with hang time.
The ball squirted high in the air and came down in the hands of Wright at the Panther 16-yard line.
"I saw the ball and it came down like something from Jesus," Wright said. "It just went straight up and once I saw it go up, I attacked it."
That led to a 9-play 16-yard drive that culminated with a run from five inches out by Lane, behind fullback Singletary and linemen Reymann and Wright.
Medinger's conversion kick pushed the lead to 17-9 with 2:12 left until intermission.
Paint Branch's Thomas Handy returned the second half kickoff 51 yards and five plays later Smith found Ortiz Jones in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown.
Josh Frazier intercepted the two-point conversion attempt and the Comets maintained a 17-15 lead.
But, on Catonsville's next series, Bene't Willis returned an interception 50 yards for a score, and after another failed conversion attempt, the Panthers led 21-17 with 7:59 left in the third quarter.
Catonsville answered with an 8-play 68-yard drive that ended with Lane's short touchdown run.
Singletary (76 rushing yards) had a 29-yard run during the drive.
Catonsville missed the extra point, but led 23-21 with 3:53 left in the third quarter.
Singletary made three tackles on Paint Branch's next series and defensive ends Sean Lipscomb and Jones continued to create trouble for the Panther line and ultimately forced a punt.
Catonsville regained possession with 41 seconds left in the third quarter and chewed up another 3:43 on a 9-play 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with Lane's 17-yard run behind the Davis and Dixon.
Quarterback Aaron Jones made the most critical first down on the drive when he spun loose on a third and four from the Comet 31 for a 7-yard gain.
Singletary added a 28-yard run on a trap play up the gut.
After Medinger kicked the extra point, the Comets led 30-21 with 8:58 remaining, but Paint Branch's no-huddle offense produced a 19-yard scoring strike from Smith to Handy with 7:37 remaining.
The extra point made it 30-28 and the momentum shifted towards the visitors.
But, starting at its own 28, Catonsville ran out the clock on the game-ending drive that produced 70 yards.
"That's the drive of the year so far," Hambor said.
Lane carried 11 times for 54 yards on the march and Singletary had an 18-yard gain, but it was the kneel down from Aaron Jones that brought the loudest cheer.
"I'm really happy for everybody," Hambor said.