Trailing by 6 points, facing a daunting 4th and 12, the struggling Mt. Tabor Spartan offense lined up for what would be the deciding play of the game. After three and a half quarters, unlucky bounces and costly penalties would force Tabor to dig deep into its bag of tricks to have one last late-game shot at pulling out a victory in front of an electric homefield crowd.
How on earth did we get here?
Leading into tonight's much anticipated Mt. Tabor Spartans vs. Dudley Panthers matchup, both squads were well prepared for the interconference dogfight. While Tabor looked to bounce back from last week’s tough 7-point loss to Regan, Dudley sought to add another conference victory to its already impressive 5-1 record.
From the start, it was evident that this game was going to be evenly matched and that the team that could, in the words of Tabor head coach Tiesuan Brown, “Take a punch, get back up, then take another punch, and get back up again,'' would come out on top.
After Mt. Tabor’s opening drive ended with a missed field goal and Dudley’s first possession was snuffed out due to an interception by Tabor’s Javouse Chambers, it was clear that missed opportunities could be a theme of this game. However, Dudley put together a late first quarter drive which ended as running back Marlon Darby found the end zone to put the Panthers up 7-0 as the first quarter came to a close.
After taking the early advantage, the Panthers offense looked to keep the momentum and pushed the Tabor defense deep on their first drive of the second half. Sure enough, this game’s main theme reared its ugly head when the tough Tabor defense forced a goalline fumble which was recovered by Tabor’s Kayshaad Davis.
The defensive stalemate continued until about halfway into the start of the third quarter when things started to look bleak for the Spartans. After a brutal series of holding penalties against the Spartans pushed them back deep in their own territory, Dudley’s Jaylan Richmond slashed through the line for a crucial scoop-and-score giving the Panthers a two-touchdown cushion.
Looking to shake things up on the offensive end, the Spartans shifted starting TE Jorden Zertuche to QB. He came out hot and led the Spartans on a scoring drive which he capped on a 2-yard run.
“The whole game I was telling the boys “never quit, never quit because I believe in them and we have that heart,” Zertuche said postgame. “I told them to stay physical, keep going, just keep pounding.”
However, immediately following these first points of the night for the Spartans, Mike Wyman sucked the life out of Bob Sapp Field with a 90 yard kickoff return. Unfortunately, for the Panthers, a holding penalty was called on the return and Dudley had to start at midfield on its possession.
Dudley wouldn't let this tough call hold them back, however. The relentless Panther offense capped this successful drive on a 23-yard touchdown run by Milan Summers, but the PAT was unsuccessful and Dudley held a 20-7 lead. And on Tabor’s ensuing possession, the Panthers highly skilled two-way star Branson Adams snared an interception.
If things looked bad for Tabor early on, they looked dismal now as they faced a 20-7 deficit as its defense took the field with under 8 minutes remaining in the game.
That's when head Spartan Coach Brown’s “Take a punch and get back up” attitude shined bright through his determined squad.
After a key counter-interception to get the ball back, Coach Brown reached deep in his bag of tricks to give the Spartans late hope.
“I wanted to call it earlier. We always feel like we can do it, it was there from the beginning. We had to get something turned and something going,” Coach Brown explained as his reasoning for making his fake punt play call. “I looked at KD (Kayshaad Davis) and said ‘hey run this thing hard.’ He said ‘coach, I’m going to take this thing to the house’ and that’s exactly what he did.''
A rejuvenated Tabor crowd erupted as Davis fended off several Panther defenders on his 43-yard fake punt touchdown run. With the lead cut to 20-14 and momentum on their side, the fired-up Tabor defense held Dudley on a 3-and-out series. After the Panther punt, the Spartans faced their biggest challenge of the night--they had to score with only a couple of minutes remaining on a night with their offense ailing.
Three quick plays later, Tabor faced a fateful 4th and 12; a fake punt wasn’t going to save them this time. That's when Spartan receiver Rahkem Roberts saw his opportunity and a hole in the Dudley defense.
“I seen the safety come down, so I said ‘yeah it’s my time to shine’ so I took off, caught the ball, went to go score and put the team on my back.”
The stands at Bob Sapp Field were shaking as the fans watched an incredible, back-against-the-wall, 64-yard touchdown reception by Roberts which tied the game at 20-20. Following a successful PAT, the Spartans had a 21-20 lead, but they still had to prevent any last-minute heroics by Dudley. All Mt. Tabor fans breathed a sigh of relief as Roberts stepped up again with a game ending interception which sealed the win.
Although this matchup started slowly for both sides, it developed into a nail-biter, with both teams showing grit and resilience to the final horn. Stars on both sides showed their impressive “two-way” abilities with Tabor’s Roberts and Dudley’s Adams making huge plays on offense and defense to give their teams a chance to win the game.
Next week Mt. Tabor will try to keep it rolling in a conference game against Ben L. Smith High School while Dudley will look to bounce back against a tough conference foe, the Parkland Mustangs who have a 6-2 record.