The Pilgrim football team was one good half away from a much-needed victory on Friday night.
So was Central – and the Knights made it happen.
In a battle of teams with 0-2 league records, Pilgrim took an 8-0 lead into halftime but watched the game slip away in the second half as Central scored 28 unanswered points in a 28-8 victory at Conley Stadium.
“They adjusted to a couple of things we were doing, and I think we got worn down a little bit,” said Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor. “We’ve got a couple of kids hurt that are key and we’re playing a lot of two-way right now. It shows. They’ve got big guys on the line and they wore on us a bit.”
The result was a loss that stirred varying emotions. Fresh off losses of 28-0 and 52-22, the Pats desperately needed some positives, and they delivered.
“I was happy coming out like this after North Kingstown,” O’Connor said.
On the flip side, playing well but losing their grip on the game made the loss sting more than the others.
The teams traded empty possessions for most of the first half, with five punts by Pilgrim and four punts plus a turnover on downs by the Knights.
Pilgrim largely won the field position battle, though, and eventually broke the ice. With 3:12 left in the half, the Pats started a drive near midfield and got a 26-yard run by Owen Kelly on first down. On the next play, Devon Maxwell took a handoff up the middle and rumbled 22 yards for a touchdown. Rob Quaine completed a pass to Kelly in the end zone for the two-point conversion.
Just like that, the Patriots were in front – and feeling pretty good. On Central’s next series, the Pilgrim defense forced an incompletion, hit quarterback Leonard Brown for a loss after a fumbled snap and got a sack from Darren Grant, Henry Cascella and Griffin Potter. The Knights punted again from midfield.
With 1:10 left, Pilgrim took over at its own 25 and wasted no time. David McMullen broke a 22-yard run on first down before Quaine hit Kelly for an 11-yard gain to bring the ball over midfield. After two incompletions, the Pats converted a third-and-10 with 23 seconds when Quaine hit Kelly on a go route for 37 yards and a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line. Quaine then spiked the ball to stop the clock with 11 seconds left.
On the next play, Quaine tried to hit Grant in the back of the end zone but couldn’t connect. With six seconds left, Quaine took the third-down snap and rolled right. He couldn’t find an open receiver and tucked the ball, but Central stopped him 2 yards short of the goal line as time expired.
The Pats still felt good with an 8-0 lead, but they knew they had missed an opportunity.
“They started fighting amongst themselves and we had them on the ropes,” O’Connor said. “If we punch that in, I think it’s a different game.”
The way the second half went, Pilgrim needed it to be a different game. After forcing a punt on Central’s first series, the Pats went nowhere and punted the ball right back. The Knights then hit their stride, picking up a first down and then scoring from 45 yards out on a long pass from Leonard Brown to Moses Fofana. Pilgrim cornerback Steve Medeiros had terrific coverage, but Fofana still hauled it in.
The Knights converted the two-point try to tie the game.
“Their touchdown, I don’t think the coverage could have been any better,” O’Connor said. “That was a great catch.”
The score remained deadlocked through an empty possession for each team, but things started to unravel for Pilgrim soon after. Taking over on their own 20 after a punt, the Pats tried a trap play for McMullen but a Central blitz disrupted the handoff and forced a fumble. Franklin Mercado pounced on it for the Knights.
“That hurts,” O’Connor said. “They blitzed an A gap. We didn’t pick it up at all, and he was in the backfield taking the handoff. It happens. It’s a shame it happened right then.”
And the Knights took full advantage, with Brown capping a quick, three-play drive on a 3-yard touchdown plunge. Jonathan Amado ran in the two-point conversion for a 16-8 lead.
The Pats went backwards on their next drive and punted, and the Knights kept the pedal down. They went 28 yards in five plays, with Brown scoring from a yard out to make it 22-8 with 9:16 left in the fourth quarter.
“We dominated field position in the first half,” O’Connor said. “We got caught on our own side of the field after the fumble and they controlled the field position the rest of the second half.”
From there, the Pats never got back into it. Amado intercepted Quaine on Pilgrim’s next series, and the Knights forced a turnover on downs on the possession after that.
Unfortunately for the Pats, that was par for the course in the second half. On their first six possessions of the second half, they gained a total of 8 yards.
“We didn’t have the push, we didn’t have the speed to pull,” O’Connor said. “They were getting past the pull, getting past the trap. They were able to rest some people and it showed.”
The Pats did have one near-miss early in the half, just after the Knights tied it. Quaine tried to connect with Zack Ponte on a deep pass, but the ball landed just out of his reach. Pilgrim thought a pass interference penalty could have been called on Central, but the flag never came.
“That penalty would have been huge but they didn’t call it,” O’Connor said.
The Knights added their final score with 4:10 left, when Brown found Amado on a post for a 20-yard touchdown.
Pilgrim followed with its best drive of the second half, as a heavy dose of Maxwell netted 80 yards, but they couldn’t find the end zone before the clock ran out.
Maxwell led the Pilgrim offense with 84 yards and the touchdown on 18 carries. Kelly rushed 11 times for 63 yards and McMullen tallied 43 yards on five carries. The Pats out-gained Central 179-106 on the ground.
Brown accounted for all four of Central’s touchdowns, throwing for two and rushing for two. Amado led all rushers with 85 yards on 14 carries.
Pilgrim will be back in action on Friday when it hosts West Warwick. The Wizards started 0-2 in league play but knocked off Shea last week.
“We’re not getting the breaks yet,” O’Connor said. “We’re still working hard. The breaks come when you keep working.”