After fumbling a pitch in the opening quarter, River Hill senior running back Eje Okojie bounced back in a big way in the second.
Facing a third-and-7 from his own 33-yard line, Okojie took the pitch from quarterback Omar Hassan and got to the edge. Then the senior quickly shifted into another gear, sprinting down the sideline for a 67-yard score. Aided by a stout defense, that was all River Hill needed in a 7-0 victory over Franklin in a Class 3A state quarterfinal.
Both offenses moved the ball on their lone drives of the first quarter but were unable to get points out of it. Okojie’s fumble ended River Hill’s opening possession, while a holding penalty stalled the Indians’ opening drive in the red zone.
Pinned deep in their own territory, the Hawks looked for a spark. Okojie delivered that in abundance with his explosive run, which gave the Hawks a 7-0 advantage early in the second quarter.
“It feels really good. Earlier in the game, I fumbled a pitch and was kind of down on myself a little bit,” Okojie said. “My coach had faith in me to put me back in the game and I got great blocks on the edge. I just took it and did what I had to do after the blocks.”
Neither offense found much success after that with River Hill leading 7-0 at the break. Franklin started the second half with the ball and went three-and-out on its opening possession. The defense delivered a strong stand on River Hill’s ensuing possession giving the Indians the ball back.
After being stymied on the ground for much of the first half, Franklin gained 53 yards on its first two plays of the drive. Jamari Lewis made several defenders miss on a 37-yard run, which was followed by a 16-yard scamper by Devin Rollins. Those two explosive plays set the Indians up on the Hawks’ 30. However, a botched snap on the next play resulted in a 10-yard loss, and the Indians’ promising drive stalled on the fringe of the red zone.
“We just kind of hurt ourselves. Every time we got something going, a bad snap or something [happened],” Franklin coach Anthony Burgos said. “We just put ourselves in bad situations and put ourselves behind the chains early. We had opportunities to make plays, just weren’t able to make them. We’re a young team.”
River Hill answered Franklin’s best possession of the half with a standout drive of its own. The Hawks executed a 13-play, 68-yard march, highlighted by several runs from Hassan, Nico Lancashire and Ethan Burnett. That success on the ground set River Hill up in the red zone, where the Hawks had an opportunity to take a two-possession lead. However, Vishaal Gudapati’s 33-yard field goal attempt narrowly missed, keeping it a one-possession game.
Franklin regained some momentum, moving the ball on the ground with runs from Lewis and Anthony Gibson. Yet, with the Indians on the fringe of the red zone again, River Hill’s defense delivered with a sack by Burnett and Tyler Windsor that knocked Franklin back.
The Indians rallied to get the first down but were once again pushed back by a holding penalty. Three plays later, Franklin was unable to convert on fourth-and-7 from the Hawks’ 20, as Billy Hartman’s pass bounced off Khalil Bilal’s hand.
“When we get in the red zone, we all know what our job is, what we have to do and what’s on the line,” Burnett said. “We all knew if we win, we were regional champions. We stepped up and prepared for this all week.”
With the Indians holding all three of their timeouts inside of three minutes remaining, River Hill needed multiple first downs to seal the win. Leaning on their versatile ground attack, the Hawks did exactly that with first-down runs from Burnett and Hassan. After Hassan’s game-clinching run, senior Matthew Behrmann motioned for the first down as River Hill jumped up and down in celebration.
“Just so happy for these seniors,” River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. “This is a great group and some of these guys have been with us for three to four years; we had some of them as freshmen. Really excited for them, it’s been a while. I’m excited for the whole team and hopefully we can keep it going.”