WILMINGTON – Earnest Austin was stopped cold. It looked like Howard was going to be facing fourth-and-goal with its season on the line.
But the Wildcats’ quarterback somehow wriggled away from a tackler and backed into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown run with 2:08 remaining. Then the Howard defense stopped Friends’ final drive, and the Wildcats celebrated a 20-15 victory in the semifinals of the DIAA Division II football playoffs on Friday at Tower Hill’s DeGroat Field.
“The guy, he didn’t wrap me up, so I just kept my legs moving and I ended up in the end zone,” Austin said.
Howard was won 41 DIAA state championships, but none in football. The Wildcats will go for their first against the winner of Saturday’s Woodbridge at St. Georges semifinal at 5:30 p.m. the following Saturday at Delaware Stadium.
Fifth-seeded Howard (9-3) never led until their senior, third-year starting quarterback scored the game’s final points. Austin rushed five times for 39 yards and completed 9 of 14 passes for 82 yards, all while playing on a tender left ankle.
“That last touchdown, he just wanted it,” Wildcats coach Dan Ritter said of Austin. “You could see it. He got stopped, and he kept his feet churning. Next thing you know, he’s landing in the end zone.”
Third-seeded Friends (9-2) was playing in the semifinals for the second consecutive year, and the Quakers looked like the more poised team early. Friends ran its first eight plays to the right side before quarterback Justin Beneck went left for an 11-yard gain. A personal foul was tacked on to give the Quakers first-and-goal at the 10.
Beneck’s 4-yard pass to Henry Gise on fourth down put Friends on the board. After the Wildcats jumped offside to move the ball to the 1, Stephen Maguire plunged in for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 lead with 7:40 left in the opening quarter.
It stayed that way until Howard’s third drive of the second half. The Wildcats went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 43, and Gerald Wiggins gained the first down off left tackle, broke out of a tangle and went 57 yards for a touchdown. The two-point run failed, but Howard finally had some momentum.
“I saw the opening, I took it and just tried my best,” Wiggins said. “We got the job done.”
Wiggins finished with 23 carries for 177 yards. His coach wasn’t surprised to see the senior finally break one.
“He’s a grinder,” Ritter said. “He’s happy with 3 yards. Then he’ll get 6. Then the next thing you know, he’s running 87 yards. He works hard.”
But the Quakers responded with a nine-play, 63-yard drive. Beneck went the final 17 yards on an option keeper to the right, and James Prendergast’s PAT gave Friends a two-possession lead, 15-6, with 11:36 remaining.
“You’ve got to play through adversity,” Wiggins said. “Coach stresses that a lot in practice, play through adversity. That’s what championship teams do. So we picked it up.”
The Wildcats picked it up through the air, as Austin completed five consecutive passes on an eight-play, 55-yard march. Wiggins scored from the 5, then converted the two-point run to pull Howard within 15-14 with 8:09 to go.
“It’s the same thing as all season,” Ritter said. “We talk about second half, going hard. We run every day, and our guys believed. Once again, here it is. We’re a second-half team.”
Howard forced a three-and-out, and a short punt set up the Wildcats at the Quakers 42 with 5:49 left. Austin corralled a high shotgun snap and scrambled for 25 yards on third-and-9, then twisted free and scored the winning points three plays later.
Friends’ final drive started from its own 44, and three Beneck completions moved the Quakers to a first-and-goal at the Wildcats 9 with 42 seconds to go. Beneck spiked it to stop the clock on first down, threw incomplete on second down, and completed a short toss for a 2-yard loss on third down. Then the final pass went off the fingertips of a receiver in the middle of the end zone, and the Howard celebration began.
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.