For the first time in a while, the Pilgrim football team played a game Friday night that didn’t count for a whole lot.
The Pats, who had been in the thick of the Division II playoff race for three weeks running, saw their postseason hopes fade last week when they lost to Mt. Hope. While those playoffs got underway on Friday, the Pats hosted a crossover game against Johnston, who had narrowly missed the playoffs despite winning its final two games.
Big stage or not, the Panthers still managed to keep that show going.
Johnston hurt the Pats with big plays and built a 23-0 first-half cushion. Pilgrim made headway in the second half, but the Panthers kept right on going and came away with a 36-12 victory.
“Johnston is a good team. They’re strong and they probably should have been in the playoffs, if not for the two overtime losses,” said Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor. “They’re a good quality team, and this game shows us that we still have the breakdowns. We hold teams, and then they bust one loose. We still haven’t fixed that problem. That’s what we have to work on going forward.”
Johnston finished league play with a 4-3 record, and the first round of the playoffs made its credentials look even stronger. The Panthers lost overtime games to Central and Cumberland, who both won their quarterfinal playoff games. Johnston also beat Westerly, which won its quarterfinal.
“For how you want to finish out overall, you’ve got to come out and play with pride,” said Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo. “There’s not a lot of electricity for a game like this, but you want to play well. No matter what the story is, you want to go out there and make yourself proud.”
The Panthers started doing that late in the first quarter. After the teams traded punts on their first possessions, Johnston fumbled the ball away at its own 40-yard line.
Then the momentum swung.
A personal foul penalty and a false start on the Pats put them into second-and-27. A fumbled snap made it third-and-31, and Johnston’s Phil Ndifon then sacked Lee Verrier for an 8-yard loss. Facing fourth-and-39, the Pats punted.
Johnston took over at the Pilgrim 33 and needed just one play to find the end zone. Brenden Pappas broke loose for a 33-yard touchdown, and Evan Hopson hit the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
After that sequence, the rest of the first half was all Johnston.
Pilgrim fumbled on the second play of its next possession and with the ball bouncing backwards into the end zone, Alex Leddy kicked it out the back rather than risking a Johnston recovery, which would have been good for a touchdown. Instead, Johnston was awarded a safety.
The Panthers recovered the ensuing free kick at the Pilgrim 40. Penalties pushed them into a second-and-20, but on the next play, Ndifon ran right then cut up the middle and raced 49 yards to the end zone. Hopson made another extra point for the 16-0 lead.
The Panthers added to that cushion just before halftime. An interception gave them the ball with 49 seconds left, and Ndifon broke a 32-yard run to put the ball at the 13-yard line. After a timeout to stop the clock, Johnston quarterback Steve Simone found Jason Cate in the back of the end zone for another score.
The Panthers went to halftime up 23-0.
“We’ve got a good little ball club,” Acciardo said. “We just needed some experience. I think if we had a little more experience, all those close games, we would have fared a little better.”
Still within striking distance, the Pats came out strong in the second half, putting together a methodical opening drive that took them all the way to the Johnston 7. But on first-and-goal, Alex Leddy couldn’t hold on to a handoff, and the Panthers pounced on the fumble.
The turnover didn’t hurt too much – Johnston punted on the ensuing possession – but it did cost the Pats some time. They got another drive going and scored on a 3-yard touchdown by Andrew Leddy, but at that point, just 31 seconds remained in the third quarter.
And it didn’t take Johnston long to answer. After his team recovered an onside kick, Evan Hopson broke a 35-yard run on an option, taking it all the way to the Pilgrim 1-yard line. He ran it in on the next play and then made the point after for the 30-6 lead.
Pilgrim was forced to punt on its next possession as Johnston’s defense regained its footing.
“We don’t have a lot of size, but we’ve got some spunk,” Acciardo said. “The guys are feisty and they like to go at it. They’re fighters.”
Johnston added an insurance touchdown after the Pilgrim punt. Hopson broke another long run, this one a 65-yarder to the Pilgrim 5-yard line. He scored from there, finishing the night with 120 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s got a lot of talent,” Acciardo said. “He’s struggled a little bit with the playbook, but when he goes, he’s obviously a talented back.”
Pilgrim added a late score, marching 51 yards in eight plays. Alex Leddy capped it with a 14-yard touchdown run.
“They were bringing pressure all day, and it was tough for the makeshift line we had out there,” O’Connor said. “But they picked it up, and once they started talking, we really moved the ball well. We’ve moved the ball well all year, but penalties have killed us.”
Alex Leddy paced Pilgrim’s attack with 114 yards on 25 carries. Andrew Leddy added 43 yards on seven carries.
The Pats will now turn their attention to Thanksgiving and their annual showdown with Warwick Vets.
“Not saying they were looking past this, but you could tell the most important thing to them is Thanksgiving, especially for the seniors,” O’Connor said.