There’s no sure thing in the Catholic League, and that includes holding on to a 27-7 after opening the first two quarters in dominant fashion.
St. Augustine learned that lesson the hard way Saturday afternoon at Tad Gormley Stadium as Holy Cross mounted an absurd comeback in the regular season finale for both teams.
The Tigers erupted in the third quarter scoring 28 unanswered points to take a 35-27 advantage into the fourth, and sophomore kicker Eli LaFrance’s extra point in overtime sent Holy Cross home with a thrilling, 42-41, Catholic League victory.
The win couldn’t have come at a better time as Holy Cross had lost four of its last five games including a 29-28 loss to Brother Martin after leading 28-7 in the first half.
“We’ve had a rough stretch of games with some tough losses,” Holy Cross coach Guy LeCompte began. “It’s been a rough week for the guys and I’m very, very proud of them…I’m just really happy for our guys. They had a lot of adversity this week and they handled it really well.”
That adversity continued on the first possession of overtime when St. Aug (5-5, 1-5) junior quarterback Kendell Sampson Jr. hit junior receiver Tylie Keasley over the middle for a touchdown on third down. The Purple Knights missed the ensuing extra point, though, which left them ahead 41-35 with Holy Cross (5-5, 2-4) set to get the ball.
It was the second time St. Aug had missed a PAT in the game, which forced them to go for two with 38 seconds left in regulation following a 14-yard touchdown connection from Sampson Jr. to Keasley. Holy Cross almost wrapped up the win at that point stopping Sampson Jr. on a run attempt on the two-point conversion, but the Tigers were whistled for a facemask that some didn’t agree with to put it mildly.
Sophomore running back Justin Doyle took advantage of the extra opportunity powering his way in on the next play to tie the score at 35-35 before St. Aug pulled ahead in overtime.
Holy Cross knew a touchdown and extra point would win them the game, though, and they wasted no time getting the former as Celven Hulbert rumbled for a 10-yard touchdown on first down to tie the game at 41-41.
The ensuing extra point included more dramatics as St. Aug jumped offsides twice before LaFrance was wide left on an attempt, but the Purple Knights were whistled for hurdling. That gave Holy Cross one more chance, and this time LaFrance was true as the Tigers completed a wild comeback to close their regular season on a high note.
“First of all, I just want to thank God, my offensive line and my defense — everybody came out and played their hardest ” began Hulbert, who had 118 yards rushing with one touchdown on 13 carries. “The (touchdown run) felt great. I’ve never seen a whole that big.”
Hulbert, who now looks to be back to full strength after tearing his ACL last season, ripped off big chunks of yardage throughout the game with gains of 14, 9, 10, 15, 24, 21 and 10 yards. Juniors Jaden Handy and Jalen Johnson also combined for four runs of at least 14 yards as Holy Cross employed a Wildcat strategy for the majority of the night.
Handy or Johnson took the snaps at quarterback flanked by any combination of Handy, Johnson, Hulbert and junior running back Amiri Franklin in a three-back set.
The Tigers have used the formation before, but really ramped it up Saturday with those four combining for 37 rush attempts for 235 yards (6.4 per carry) and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, John Dade Wooton, the Catholic League’s leading passer after nine weeks, threw just 11 times completing seven for 53 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
“We needed to be able to run the football, that’s been our achilles heel,” said LeCompte, who’s team came into the game averaging 81.2 yards rushing with 3.3 yards per carry. “I feel like we can throw the ball on most teams, but we have to be able to run the ball and that was an emphasis this week.”
The strategy worked early on as Holy Cross rushed for 113 yards in the first half including a nine-yard touchdown by Franklin that cut the deficit to 14-7 with 3:00 left in the opening quarter, but two turnovers on back-to-back possessions helped swing the momentum in St. Aug’s favor.
The first turnover was a strip-sack by Purple Knight senior Kendal Rowan that was plucked out of the air by sophomore tackle Bishop Thomas. St. Aug then completed a 4-play, 17-yard drive with a 1-yard run by Sampson that gave them a 27-7 lead with 9:27 to go until halftime, which is where the score remained at intermission.
It was all Holy Cross after the break, though, as Franklin pulled of an incredible 82-yard kick return for a touchdown to start the half, then a failed fake punt attempt at St. Aug’s own 38 led to a 13-yard hookup from Wooton to Tyler Kirkwood pulling the Tigers within 27-21 with just over 3 1/2 minutes into the third.
“Those were really, really big,” St. Augustine interim head coach Kenneth Dorsey Jr. said of the kick return and failed fake punt. “We thought we saw something and we had it but we just didn’t take advantage of it. We’re going to go back to the drawing board and find those mistakes and correct them going into the playoffs.”
The Purple Knights just couldn’t re-capture their first-half magic as Holy Cross surged ahead forcing a 3-and-out before completing a 4-play, 43-yard drive. Johnson did the honors as a receiver this time hauling in a 20-yard pass from Wooton giving Holy Cross its first lead of the game at 28-27 with 5:58 remaining in the third.
The Tigers then came up with their first takeaway of the game on St. Aug’s next possession when junior Barryn Sorrell fell on a loose ball on a screen pass that was ruled a lateral. Johnson ran for six on the first play, then Hulbert picked up 21 more before a 16-yard touchdown run by Handy with 3:19 to go in the third put them ahead 35-27.
“We have a threat everywhere on the field — even with (receivers) Kirkwood and Alondre Wells,” Hulbert said. “It’s a lot of fun having those guys on the field blocking for you, running for you and (having) all the energy they bring to the practice field and the games. It’s amazing.”
Holy Cross looked like it would roll from there, but the Purple Knights showed some resiliency with their last score and two-point conversion in regulation to tie the game.
They got off to a blazing start in the first half with Jaheim Walters returning the opening kick 87 yards for a touchdown before they marched 76 yards in 9 plays for a touchdown on their offense’s first drive. Sampson Jr. hit senior tight end Gregory Norman III from 17 yards out for a 14-0 advantage, and Doyle pushed the lead to 20-7 with 27 seconds left in the first quarter on a 40-yard run.
“I think we started strong, we just didn’t finish well,” Dorsey Jr. said. “A good team like that, you’ve got to still come back in the second half and bring that same energy you did in the first half and we just didn’t do that today. Kudos to them, they did a hell of a job of fighting and clawing to get back in the game.”
The overtime result could serve as a valuable learning experience for both teams as they head into the Division I playoffs.
The Tigers went into the game at No. 7 in the LHSAA’s Division I power rankings and will likely see No. 10 St. Paul’s to start their playoff run. St. Augustine was right behind them at No. 8 and would host No. 9 Byrd if the two teams stay put.
The Purple Knights head into the postseason splitting their last four matchups while Holy Cross got its first win since October 18 over Warren Easton, 49-26. They had since lost to Rummel, John Curtis and Brother Martin, which have a combined record of 27-3.
Needless to say, Saturday’s win couldn’t have come at a much better time.
“I think this is great energy to have going into the playoffs,” said Holy Cross linebacker and Louisiana Tech commitment Tyler Grubbs, who had a huge day for the Tigers including a fourth-quarter interception. “We needed this win and and I think we’re really a threat to anyone we’re going to play.”
Holy Cross: 278 yards of total offense (225 rushing, 53 passing)
St. Augustine: 396 yards of total offense (120 rushing, 276 passing)
Rushing: Celven Hulbert, 13-118, 1 TD; Jaden Handy, 9-64, 1 TD; Jalen Johnson, 11-29; Amiri Franklin, 4-24, 1 TD; John Dade Wooton, 4-(-10).
Receiving: Jalen Johnson, 5-25, 1 TD; Tyler Kirkwood, 1-13, 1 TD; Jaden Handy, 1-8; Alondre Wells, 1-7.
Passing: John Dade Wooton, 7-11, 46 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT.
Rushing: Justin Doyle, 11-59, 1 TD; Mahmood Bailey, 9-33; Kendell Sampson Jr., 15-31, 1 TD; Wendell Newton, 1-(-3).
Receiving: Tylie Keasley, 8-121, 2 TDs; Khi Mathieu, 7-80; Gregory Norman III, 2-41, 1 TD; Mahmood Bailey, 3-14; Albert Quest V, 2-11; August Banks Jr., 1-9.
Passing: Kendell Sampson Jr., 23-33, 276 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT.
St. Augustine — Jaheim Walters 87 kickoff return (Jaron Marks III kick), 11:44, 0-7.
St. Augustine — Gregory Norman III 17 pass from Kendell Sampson Jr. (Marks III kick), 5:23, 0-14.
Holy Cross — Amiri Franklin 9 run (Eli LaFrance kick), 3:00, 7-14.
St. Augustine — Justin Doyle 40 run (kick failed), 0:27, 7-20.
St. Augustine — Sampson Jr. 1 run (Marks III kick), 9:27, 7-27.
Holy Cross — Amiri Franklin 82 kickoff return (LaFrance kick), 11:39, 14-27.
Holy Cross — Tyler Kirkwood 13 pass from John Dade Wooton (LaFrance kick), 8:37, 21-27.
Holy Cross — Jalen Johnson 20 pass from Wooton (LaFrance kick), 5:58, 28-27.
Holy Cross — Jaden Handy 16 run (LaFrance kick), 3:19, 35-27.
St. Augustine — Tylie Keasley 14 pass from Sampson Jr. (Doyle run), 0:38, 35-35.
St. Augustine — Keasley 10 pass from Sampson Jr. (kick failed), 35-41.
Holy Cross — Celven Hulbert 10 run (LaFrance kick), 42-41.
NEXT UP: Both teams will await the LHSAA’s releasing of the Division I playoff brackets this Sunday. If all rankings hold true through Week 10, No. 7 Holy Cross would host No. 10 St. Paul’s while No. 8 St. Augustine would host No. 9 Byrd.