Riding high off back-to-back blowouts to open the season, it wasn’t a shock that Louisa County slipped into cruise control after building a 23-point halftime lead. But perennial class 5A contender Massaponax was not going to roll over in its home opener.
“We learned that we’ve got to play four quarters of football,” said Louisa County coach Will Patrick, whose squad amassed 362 yards of offense in the first half but managed just 18 in the third quarter while surrendering 35 yards in penalties.
Massaponax couldn’t get anything going in the third quarter, but roared to life after defensive lineman Arnell Thomas scooped up a fumble in Louisa’s backfield and rumbled 37 yards to flip the field with 9:15 left in the fourth. Seven plays later, the Panthers cashed-in the turnover with a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Gabe Newby-Morris. They compounded the late-game momentum by parlaying a perfectly-executed onside kick into another touchdown via a 7-yard Newby-Morris keeper. After a successful two-point conversion, the Lions’ lead was down to eight with 2:59 to play.
For a moment, it looked like Massaponax was pulling off another successful onside kick, but referees stopped the action as the Panthers were offside. After the five-yard setback, they opted to kick deep and play defense with two timeouts at their disposal. Massaponax spent those following two Louisa runs that netted zero yards, setting up a crucial third-and-10 with 2:40 remaining.
Patrick stacked all his chips on senior quarterback Landon Wilson. The Lions’ signal-caller picked up 7 yards on third down, leaving Louisa with fourth-and-3 at their own 33 as the clock ticked down toward 2:00. Patrick opted not to burn a timeout or try to draw the defensive front offsides, but instead doubled-down.
“No hesitation,” said Patrick. “Fourth-and-3, we’re gonna run our plays and I’m going to put it in his (Wilson’s) hand. Could’ve easily punted it, but I just felt more comfortable trying to get it.”
Wilson made sure the gamble paid off by breaking another keeper for a 34-yard gain and a fresh set of downs. He might have gone the distance but opted to slide down safely in the middle of the field as Massaponax had no way to stop the clock. Two more snaps and time ran out, securing a 30-22 victory for Louisa.
“I knew I was gonna make a play,” said Wilson, who finished with 322 yards of offense, including 68 on the ground. “I’ve been working my butt off all season, all four years, and I’m glad the coaches trusted me to be able to get that play.”
Louisa’s trust in Wilson was evident. After receiving the game’s opening kickoff, the Lions’ first series ended abruptly with a third-an-10 interception. But over the rest of the half, Wilson completed 12-of-17 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. His top target was freshman Dyzier Carter, a big headache for the Panthers’ secondary to cover and chase down as he snagged nine receptions for 215 yards by halftime.
“That’s what they were giving us,” said Patrick. “They’re a heavy-blitz team and we saw some things [on tape] that we could hopefully have some success with, and we did. Landon made some really good throws. Our receivers are just top-notch. Dyzier’s a heck-of-a receiver, just an unbelievable player.”
Louisa’s defense also had a stellar night against the Panthers’ option-attack, but for the six-minute stretch in the middle of the fourth quarter.
“The triple-option will keep you up all week, trying to prepare for it,” Patrick said.
The defense stood firm after the early interception to force a four-and-out, including stopping a run on a fake punt just shy of the line to gain at the Massaponax 30. Louisa took advantage in just four plays. After Wilson and Carter connected for the first time to pick up 26, Wilson took a keeper around the left side for a six-yard score.
The Panthers then served their guests another field-position gift with a fumbled backfield exchange that senior linebacker Sam Klapak recovered at the Massaponax 22. The Lions needed six plays to cash-in, thanks to an illegal block penalty, but Wilson found senior tight end Cameron Hawkins wide-open for a 14-yard touchdown and 14-0 lead.
“It was a tight-end banana play and I just slipped right out and they never saw me,” said Hawkins. “It was effort over everything in the first quarter. The team was ballin’.”
Massaponax finally got in gear when junior Donavan Phillips broke a third-and-1 run through a loaded box for a 65-yard touchdown to make it 14-7 before the end of the quarter.
Wilson kept Louisa’s offense rolling on the ensuing 11-play drive. Although it began at the Lions’ 35, they also had to overcome 30 yards in holding penalties. Carter had catch-and-run pickups of 30 and 28 yards. Freshman running back Savion Hiter rushed for nine to convert a third-and-4. Wilson connected with senior Austin Talley over the middle for a 12-yard score to make it 21-7.
The defense contained three Phillips runs for two yards each to force a quick punt back to Louisa. Although the Panthers’ Jacob Lynch uncorked a 51-yard gem that rolled down to the 5, it wouldn’t slow Wilson and Carter. The pair connected for nine yards on third down to move the chains at the 15, followed immediately by another catch-and-run special that went for an 85-yard touchdown.
“They weren’t guarding the flats for some reason and the whole week we practiced the short routes, quick-gain screen passes, and the receivers came out and caught the ball today,” Wilson said.
As the next two Massaponax possessions ended with a first-snap fumble (recovered by senior lineman Cameron Hedrick) and three-and-out punt, it seemed like the rout might be on. But Louisa’s final drive of the half was waylaid by four penalties, including on three-straight plays that created a first-and-27 back at their own 20. But with 0:26 left, Patrick dialed up a hook-and-ladder which was perfectly-executed by Wilson, Carter, and Hiter for a gain of 27 across midfield. After a Wilson-to-Carter connection for 23, the Lions were in field goal range. Senior Caden Lundy split the uprights from 35 yards out to make it 30-7 at the break.
The teams played a scoreless third quarter, with the Panthers’s opening 10-play drive thwarted by a sack-fumble after reaching the Lions’ 28. Louisa kept things on the ground and couldn’t reclaim their first-half momentum as holding penalties set them back. For the game, Louisa was flagged 12 times for 122 yards.
“Those penalties really kept them in the ballgame, in my opinion,” said Patrick. “You’ve just got to overcome. We had some adversity there in the second half, but we were able to finish a football game.”
The Panthers’ Phillips led all rushers with 153 yards on 20 carries. William Wiggins spelled him in the fourth quarter and carried 11 times for 78 yards. Hiter led Louisa with 119 yards on 19 rushes.
Louisa (3-0) wraps up a three-week road stretch next Friday with its first Jefferson District contest at Fluvanna County (0-3).