Late in the third quarter Friday night at St. Stanislaus, all signs pointed to West Marion dropping to 1-1 in Region 8-3A play as the Trojans trailed 20-6. But West Marion mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback behind the efforts of its uber-talented trio of Octavious Harvey, Larry Magee and Jakaden Mark, scoring 20 unanswered points to top the Rock-a-Chaws 26-20 to remain unbeaten in district play.
“I really don’t how we did it. The scoreboard that was there said we won somehow,” Trojans head coach Brandon Thornhill joked. “I think they have it in them, always, to pull stuff out like that. I just wish they would get it and develop that for four quarters on the mental side of the game. I thought the other team got tired there in the end, and, of course, the momentum swung so big.”
After falling behind 20-6, Harvey returned an interception for a touchdown and ran for a 28-yard touchdown to tie the game at 20-20. Then, with just 14 seconds remaining, Magee found Mark in the flat, and Mark did the rest with a 26-yard touchdown on fourth down to win the game.
Magee and the Trojans had it cooking on the opening drive as Magee completed a pair of passes for 33 yards combined and ran for 31 to reach the red zone. But then Magee, from a clean pocket, threw into double coverage and well behind his intended target, leading to an easy interception for the Rock-a-Chaws. West Marion’s defense managed to force a punt, though, after giving up just one first down, which opened the door for the first score of the game.
Magee and Mark each ripped off a pair of long gains on the ground with West Marion’s offensive line dominating to get the Trojans into the red zone. Mark had a touchdown brought back because of a penalty, which left West Marion in a tough position facing third-and-goal from the St. Stanislaus 18. The Trojans lined up in their heavy personnel with Harvey lined up at quarterback, a formation they used to pick up a key first down on the drive, but introduced a new wrinkle. Magee, who lined up at receiver, came around on a reverse to pick up 16 yards. Then on fourth-and-goal, Harvey punched it in from the same formation from 2 yards out to give the Trojans a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter.
After a long pass and a pass interference call, the Rock-a-Chaws were threatening on the ensuing drive, but West Marion’s defense forced them to kick a 31-yard field goal that made it 6-3 with 5:09 remaining in the first half.
A false start and a holding call derailed West Marion’s next possession and had the Trojans facing third-and-long. With the dominant running game not an option, Magee tried to pick it up with his arm, but after retreating about 12 yards, he just threw it up for grabs in the middle of the field off his back foot and was picked off again.
The turnover helped St. Stanislaus take the lead three plays later. Rock-a-Chaws quarterback Alex Fabra launched a bomb deep over the middle of the field that Canye Bankston ran under for a 40-yard touchdown. West Marion’s Tyler Aikens had good coverage on the play, but it was a good catch and an even better throw that put St. Stanislaus ahead 10-6 with less than a minute to play in the first half.
Things went from bad to worse for the Trojans on the ensuing kickoff. Aikens couldn’t handle the kickoff and by the time he got a handle on it, he was hit inside the 5. The Rock-a-Chaws punched the ball loose on the tackle and recovered it on the West Marion 1. On the very next play, they punched it on the ground to go up 17-6 going into the locker rooms. Thornhill said the Trojans didn’t play with the right intensity in the first half.
A pair of long runs led to another field goal attempt for St. Stanislaus to open the second half, but Zavion Pittman came around the edge to block the kick for the Trojans. But the momentum didn’t stay with West Marion for long. Just two plays later, St. Stanislaus had the ball back in the red zone after stripping Mark.
While a big sack by Harvey, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, would have been enough to force a punt and get the ball back for West Marion against about 98% of teams in the state, St. Stanislaus is not one of those teams. Freshman kicker Evan Noel booted a 48-yard field goal that could have been good from 60 yards, extending the Rock-a-Chaws lead to two touchdowns, 20-6.
Late in the third quarter, a bit of trickery by St. Stanislaus came back to bite the Rock-a-Chaws. They tried a fake punt, but Noel’s pass was tipped by Kobe Pittman and intercepted by Harvey, who returned it 65 yards for a touchdown and cut the deficit to 20-12.
Thornhill said while St. Stanislaus hadn’t showed a fake punt on film, the Rock-a-Chaws had laid the foundation for a potential fake with the way they motion pre-snap. So West Marion practiced how it would defend a fake punt in the week leading up to the game, which proved to be wise.
St. Stanislaus had a golden opportunity to put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter, but the Trojans defense came up with another huge play. Davien Lagarde, lined up as a Wildcat quarterback, carried the ball to the Trojans 1, where he was stripped and the Trojans recovered it. Had the Rock-a-Chaws scored there, it likely would’ve been too steep of a hill for West Marion to climb.
But instead, the Trojans were able to respond with their most impressive drive of the season. They orchestrated a nine-play, 99-yard touchdown drive that was littered with crucial plays in big moments. First, they had to convert a fourth-and-1 from their own 11, which Magee picked up by a few inches. Then, after Magee connected with Davonte Matthews for 14 yards and a first down, the dual-threat playmaker ripped off a 42-yard run to get inside the St. Stanislaus 30. On the next play, Harvey read the blocking perfectly to get to the second level then made the safety miss in the open field to find the end zone on a 28-yard run. Mark then tied it up with a successful 2-point conversion with 8:07 left in regulation.
“We knew we had to do it,” Thornhill said of the 99-yard drive. “We couldn’t give them the ball back. When it was fourth-and-inches, there was never a question of, ‘Should we go for it?’ If we don’t get it, the game is probably over, and if we punt it, the game could be over.”
A short squib kick then backfired on the Trojans and allowed the Rock-a-Chaws to start the ensuing drive inside West Marion territory with the opportunity to take the lead. But St. Stanislaus hurt itself on the first play of the drive. Fabra tried to throw a quick swing pass, but it was well behind the receiver and a backwards pass that resulted in a loss of 13 yards. On second-and-23, Harvey did what he does best, which is making plays behind the line of scrimmage, sacking Fabra for another big loss. The resulting punt didn’t even reach the first-down marker, setting the Trojans up with good field position at their own 40.
“(Harvey) is a really smart football player. He puts a lot of time into it, does things the right away and practices really hard,” Thornhill said. “You can’t coach the effort he gives.”
Mark started off the drive with a great run, running through a defender and making a sharp cut to make two defenders miss at once to pick up 24 yards. But after a holding call backed the Trojans up, they faced a fourth-and-16 from the Rock-a-Chaws 26. Magee threw a simple dump-off pass in the flat to Mark, who got to the sideline, cut back inside to make a man miss and accelerated through the St. Stanislaus defense for a touchdown with just 14 seconds on the clock. The way Mark cut without losing any speed was mightily impressive. Although the 2-point conversion was no good, West Marion went up 26-20.
St. Stanislaus only had enough time for one play after the kickoff, and West Marion’s pressure kept Fabra from being able to throw a Hail Mary, sealing the victory for the Trojans.
“We had a lot of things go wrong in the last minute of the (first) half. I felt really good about the 22 minutes before that. The last minute-and-a-half things fell apart. We give up a big play on third down, then of course the kickoff blunder. We drop it, pick it up, get hit and fumble it on the 1. It was just like a gift. But then we kind of got a gift ourselves in the second half,” Thornhill said. “The kids just hung in there and played hard.”
Since the Columbia game, Thornhill said the offense has come a long way and has improved the past three weeks, as has the defense. He added apart from giving up two long third-down conversions, he felt really good about what the Trojans defense did.
The Trojans will go on the road this week to take on Perry Central (3-4, 1-1), who is coming off a 51-0 win over St. Patrick. The week before, the Bulldogs lost to Jeff Davis County 47-12.