Monticello developed a bit of a habit this season of spotting opponents multi-touchdown leads only to storm back in the second half. But in a Region 3C playoff contest at the Valley District champion on the coldest night of the year, midnight finally struck for the 2023 Mustangs.
“Didn’t have enough at the end, but very impressed with what our guys were able to do,” said Monticello coach Matt Hicks, whose squad fell 21-14 to No. 3 seed Spotswood in Penn Laird on Friday night. “In situations like this, road playoff environment, tough first half, to be able to play together, push through adversity, and do what we did [in the third quarter] defensively and be able to get something working offensively, just speaks to the character of these young men, their hard work, their dedication, and everything they’ve been able to accomplish this year.”
The Blazers led 21-0 at the half but saw Monticello turn two third-quarter turnovers into 14 points. Spotswood looked poised to respond on a red-zone drive, but the Mustang defense held on-downs with 9 seconds left in the period, putting the offense back on the field with a chance to complete a comeback for the second consecutive week, and fifth time on the season. Mixing runs by junior running backs Ezekiel Pour and Tre Early, and two completions from junior quarterback Owen Engle to senior receiver Brandon Herring, Monticello put together its best series of the game, reaching the Spotswood 34 as the clock ticked under seven minutes to play. Facing third-and-6, the Mustangs dialed up another pass play, but junior defensive back Justin Barnes made a huge interception.
“We had two playmakers go out, and he stepped in and made a great play,” said Spotswood coach Dale Shifflett. “If we don’t get that play, I don’t know what happens.”
Taking over at their own 18 with 6:50 remaining, senior running back Parker Constable and the Blazers’ offensive line made sure the Mustangs would not get another chance to tie. Constable took handoffs on 13 straight snaps, picking up five first downs (with one aided by a face mask penalty) to seal the victory.
“I want to give a lot [of credit] to my o-line, they were just pushing, play after play,” said Constable, who finished with 165 yards on 34 carries, both game-highs. “We let [Monticello] get 14 points that we just lacked on, and then we came back and just finished the game with running. We were all pretty gassed after that.”
As unstoppable as Constable and the ground attack was down the stretch, the Blazers had generally struggled to put together similar drives. The first spark came when the offense took the field at its own 36 with just 2:15 left in the first half.
“We started doing some tempo and I think it kind of caught them off guard a little bit,” said Shifflett.
The Blazers went with tempo but called five straight Constable runs, on which he tallied 62 yards, including a pair of 21-yarders.
“I think everybody hears the words ‘two minute drive’ and, especially where we’ve been in the Jefferson District, that means going to the air and chucking and chucking,” said Hicks. “[Spotswood] is a really good running team. They feel very comfortable putting the ball in their running back’s hand on a two-minute drive, and he was able to rip off a couple of big runs. As coaches, we’re reminding guys to read what’s in front of you, and it’s telling you run. It was one of those situational things we’ll be able to look at, coach them up on, and hopefully use as we go into next year.”
On the sixth play, Elliott Brown capped the drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to junior Rayne Dean, sending Spotswood into the break with a three-touchdown advantage.
“[Elliott] played great, and he’s played well all year,” said Shifflett of his junior quarterback who claimed the program’s all-time passing yardage record during the game. Brown finished 5-of-13 for 54 yards, besting Engel’s line of 2-of-12 for 18 yards.
The Blazers jumped out to a 14-0 lead by the 5:07 mark of the first quarter thanks to short fields provided by defense and a punt snafu. Junior Da’Quan Hamilton intercepted a third-and-long pass on Monticello’s opening series, setting up the offense at the MHS 23. Brown moved the chains on third down with an 11-yard pass to Dean, and two plays later, senior Matt Craig ran in from two yards. After Monticello went three-and-out on its second series, the snap sailed over the punter’s head. Spotswood took over at the MHS 8 and Constable covered the distance with two rushes.
“We gave a great football team the ball twice inside the 20, and that’s really unfortunate,” Hicks said.
The teams traded punts for the balance of the first half, with Spotswood picking up just one first down on its next three possessions before its big scoring drive before the break. The Blazers had a 126-23 yardage edge in first-half offense, but 79 came on that final drive.
Midway through the third quarter, Monticello’s defense finally provided a spark with Spotswood in the red zone by forcing a fumble after a pass reception. Five plays later, Pour broke loose for a 40-yard touchdown run. The defense stepped up again as Brandon Herring intercepted a third-and-18 pass and returned it to the SHS 10. Tre Early then took the snap out of the wildcat and rushed around the left edge for the Mustangs’ second touchdown in less than two minutes of game time.
Early led Monticello (8-3) with 90 yards on 11 rushes. Pour carried 21 times for 87 yards.
Spotswood (10-1) earned a trip to No. 2 seed Turner Ashby (10-1) for a Region 3C semifinal and rematch of a November 3rd clash where the Blazers upset the Knights to claim the regular-season district title.