WILMINGTON – Earnest Austin ran for three touchdowns and No. 5 seed Howard held off a valiant Tower Hill comeback to win its opening-round game of the DIAA Division II football playoff 30-16 Friday night.
Howard couldn’t have asked for a better start, using a little razzle-dazzle to ignite a four-play, 56-yard scoring drive. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Austin — the Wildcats’ quarterback —hit Nicholas Johnson on a short pass to the right, with Johnson pitching the ball to a streaking Trevon Bordrick. The play was good for 33 yards. After runs by Bordrick and Gerald Wiggins, Austin burst up the middle on a keeper for a 6-yard TD. Shawn Bowman caught a conversion pass for an 8-0 lead.
“They play their corners back so far,” said Bordrick, “we had a plan where we would catch them napping. That started off the drive, that started off our energy, and that started off our momentum for the whole entire game. We wanted that to dictate our whole entire game.”
After stopping Tower Hill deep in its own territory, Na’Quan Watson’s pressure forced a hurried punt which didn’t reach the line of scrimmage. Taking over at the 11, Austin scored his second TD of the game on fourth-and-1. Wiggins’ 2-point run set the Wildcats up with a 16-0 lead just 5:18 into the game.
“Sixteen-nothing,” said Austin. “That gave us a big spark in the first quarter. At that point, we thought it was going to be a blowout right from the beginning, but they didn’t give up. They came back and punched us in the mouth, and we had to deal with adversity and come back and finish the game off.”
“It felt good to be in the lead,” said Wildcats coach Dan Ritter. “Then you’re not playing catch-up, you’re not playing from behind. We wanted to start fast, and strong.”
The Hillers, however, let it be known that there was plenty of time remaining to make a contest of it. Riding a heavy diet of A.J. Falco runs (eight for 41 yards), Tower Hill moved to the Howard 16. The drive stalled, but Chris Miller kicked a 33-yard field goal to get the Hillers on the board.
Miles Lane recovered the ensuing onsides kick, but the Hillers bogged down at the Howard 29. But two huge pass plays kept the Hillers’ momentum going. First, Korey Kent had a 71-yard apparent TD erased for Howard, as he pushed off his defender for an offensive pass interference penalty.
Two plays later, Lane stepped up again. Austin was hit as he let go a pass and Lane snagged the fluttering football at the 29 yard line and returned it up the right side for a score.
The Wildcats lead was sliced to 16-10 with 8:35 remaining in the half.
Both teams then engineered long touchdown drives to head into intermission.
Howard went 67 yards in 12 plays, the big one being Kent’s catch and cross-field run for 20 yards on third-and-1. Wiggins eventually scored, taking a pitch around right end for an easy touchdown.
The Hillers answered right back, scoring on the final play of the half, a 3-yard run by Falco on fourth down. Noah Thomas’ 44-yard run up the left sideline put Tower Hill in the position for the score, which made it 22-16 at the break in favor of Howard.
Defenses clamped down in the second half as neither team could work its way into a red-zone opportunity until the final minute. The biggest play may have come from Howard, who stopped Falco for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Hillers’ 32 with 4:57 remaining.
Howard then went four-and-out, but the Hillers’ last chance was thwarted by a pair of incompletions and Darin Matthews’ tackle of Falco (33 carries on the night) for no gain. Austin then put the final touches on the victory for the Wildcats with his third TD run, reversing field for a 22-yard trek to the end zone.
“I’m super-proud of our kids’ effort,” said Hillers coach Kevin Waesco. “Howard’s a great squad, certainly, but we made mistakes early on, we came back … We had some opportunities there in the second half and had we been able to convert, we’d probably be having a different conversation here.”
For Ritter, it’s felt great to get that first-round win of the No. 4 seeds on their turf.
“It feels good,” he said, “especially as hard as my kids have worked. It’s a great group of kids, it’s a family and they’re working hard for each other.”