After stopping South Carroll on a fourth-and-1 with 3:55 left in the game, Westminster put itself in position to complete a remarkable comeback Friday night in the Carroll County championship game.
The Owls had erased a 19-point second-half deficit, only to watch South Carroll storm back and retake the lead. However, Westminster remain unfazed and quarterback Duke Etchison scored his fifth rushing touchdown with 2:29 remaining to give the Owls a 43-40 victory and their third consecutive league title.
"That's the most I've run in a good while," Etchison said. "I got a good workout tonight. And I feel great. This is what you play for all season long, to play for these types of moments."
It was the most combined points in 46 meetings between the schools. South Carroll has already clinched a spot in the Class 2A West regional playoffs. With the victory and a little help, the Owls secured a spot in the Class 3A North playoffs.
Both teams entered the game undefeated in the county at 6-0. But Westminster (7-3) had its playoff hopes dampened with losses to Middletown, Urbana and Linganore in the first three games of the season. South Carroll (8-2) also lost to Linganore in its season opener before reeling off eight straight wins to secure a playoff spot.
"Wow, what a ballgame," said Westminster coach Brad Wilson. "Give credit to them, they didn't quit. Credit to Duke and those kids on offense. Credit to the defense. I'm so proud of this group. When you get down like that, they didn't have to come back. It's just the character of these kids."
South Carroll quarterback Ben Nardo threw four touchdown passes and caught another on a reverse.
Trailing 33-14 early in the second half, Westminster refused to go away and pulled to within five points with 2:14 left in the third quarter on a pair of 3-yard scoring runs by Etchison.
After the Owls forced a fumble, Etchison made the Cavaliers pay by scoring from 1 yard out and then converted a 2-point conversion with a pass to Patrick Fitzgerald, providing the Owls with their first lead, 36-33, with 10:16 remaining in the game.
South Carroll retook the lead on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Nardo to Daniel White with 6:34 left. Etchison then scored again on a 5-yard run to give the Owls back the lead.
The Cavaliers' prolific offense has also scored more than 40 points in six games this season. Westminster has been equally adept offensively, averaging 43 points in its six-game winning streak heading into Friday's showdown.
In this matchup, it was the Cavaliers who took the early advantage, opening a 13-0 lead behind the arm of Nardo. First, he hit Andrew Louder on a 30-yard pass with 9:31 left in the first quarter and then he found Zachary Wolfrey on a 2-yard touchdown pass.
The Owls responded and cut the margin to 13-7 on a 20-yard run by Brian Kohr. Then, on the next possession, South Carroll increased its lead to 21-7 when Nardo threw another 2-yard touchdown pass to White with 11:50 remaining in the half.
Westminster pulled to within a touchdown six minutes later on a 2-yard run by Etchison. But the Cavaliers seized the momentum before halftime when Wolfrey took a reverse and threw a 9-yard pass to Nardo for a 27-14 lead.
Wolfrey then sparked the defense by intercepting Etchison on the opening drive of the second half. Five plays later, Gavin made the Owls pay for the mistake with a 2-yard touchdown run, boosting the lead to 33-14 before Westminster made the comeback.
"It was a tough game, but we made too many mistakes at times," Nardo said. "We've got to eliminate those. We came out with energy and then got a little flat. I think that cost us."
Westminster 0 14 14 15 - 43
South Carroll 7 20 6 7 - 40
SC -- Nardo 16 pass to Louder (Baca kick) SC -- Nardo 2 pass to Wolfrey (kick blocked) W -- Kohr 2 run (Cohen kick) SC -- Nardo 2 pass to White (White to Wolfrey)
W- Etchinson 2 run (Cohen kick)
SC-- Wolfrey 9 pass to Nardo (pass faied)
SC-- Gavin 2 run (kick failed)
W-- Etchinson 3 run (Cohen kick(
W -- Etchinson 3 run (Cohen)
W--Etchinson 1 run (Etchinson to Fitzgerald)
SC-- Nardo 35 pass to White (Baca kick)
W-- Etchinson 5 yards (Cohen kick)