WILMINGTON – Earnest Austin’s left ankle was throbbing, to the point where he left Tower Hill’s DeGroat Field on crutches after the game.
But first, there was a touchdown to score.
Austin appeared to be stopped on third-and-goal from the 4 with 2:08 remaining in last Saturday’s DIAA Division II semifinal against Wilmington Friends. His Howard Wildcats had trailed the entire game, and time was running out.
But Austin broke away from a tackler and tumbled into the end zone to give Howard a 20-15 lead. The Wildcats stopped the Quakers’ final drive to reach their first state championship game since 2002.
“My ankle was hurting the whole game,” Austin said. “But when I needed to pull through, I pulled through.”
Austin hopes to pull through one more time on Saturday, as fifth-seeded Howard (9-3) meets top-seeded St. Georges (11-1) in the Division II championship game at 5:30 p.m. at Delaware Stadium.
“Watching film of him over the last two days, he’s gotten better each week,” St. Georges coach J.D. Maull said Monday. “He’s definitely a leader for them. He’s athletic, and he makes some good throws. He’s the decision maker for those guys.”
Austin rushed five times for 39 yards and completed 9 of 14 passes for 82 yards in the semifinals. He was at his best late in the game, after Friends took a 15-6 lead with 11:36 to play. Howard had to score twice to win, and Austin made it happen.
“At the beginning of the game, I felt good,” said Austin, who first injured the ankle against Tower Hill in the Wildcats’ playoff opener two weeks ago. “But I had a couple of runs in the beginning of the game, somebody landed on it and it started hurting again.
“I just had to be a man and fight through it. That’s what my coach kept telling me. Especially at halftime, he said, ‘Put the team on your back and just fight through it.’ That’s what I did.”
Howard coach Dan Ritter was impressed. Not only with Austin’s effort, but his demeanor.
“He brings leadership. He brings calm,” Ritter said. “You don’t really see him get excited when he’s calling plays. Nothing seems to rattle him.
“He’s the calming effect on offense.”
It’s the type of influence you would expect from a three-year starter. The Wildcats had to open up the offense in the fourth quarter, and Austin delivered.
“I think we should have passed the ball all game,” he said. “When we did make the decision to pass the ball, I think I went about 8 for 8.”
Actually, Austin completed his final seven passes. But all of them were critical. He went 5-for-5 for 53 yards on the Wildcats’ next-to-last drive, including strikes of 13 yards to Trevon Bordrick and 17 yards to Shawn Bowman. Gerald Wiggins scored on a 5-yard run to pull Howard within 15-14 with 8:09 remaining.
“He took his time on the passes, found the open man,” Wiggins said. “The line did a good job blocking. But most of all that was good reading by the QB, by Earnest.”
On the final drive, Austin made the two biggest plays with his feet. He controlled a high snap and scrambled for 25 yards on third-and-9, then broke the tackle and scored the winning points three plays later.
“E is a good quarterback. He lifts the team up,” Wiggins said. “He’s a good role model for the team. He plays hard, and he showed that he’s physical.”
The Wildcats have knocked off No. 4 Tower Hill and No. 3 Friends on the way to the final. Howard has won 41 state titles in various sports, but a win Saturday would make its first football championship. The Wildcats lost to St. Georges 35-14 back on Sept. 18 – the second week of the season – but a young team has matured since then.
“We made history,” Austin said after the Friends win. “That’s what I kept preaching to the team, let’s make history. Let’s go out and shock the world.”
A championship would be even more historic.
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ