Pelham upsets No. 7 Briarwood with fourth-quarter comeback

Published 12:19 am Friday, September 9, 2022

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

PELHAM – Trailing 34-28 with three minutes left against Briarwood, the Pelham Panthers were hoping to hand the Lions a taste of their own medicine on Thursday night, Sept. 8.

Looking to erase a 20-point deficit at the half and to start the third quarter, Pelham quarterback Clayton Mains took a snap with 3:02 left in the game, heaved the ball deep down field and hit a laid-out Trey Corkill falling into the end zone for what gave the Panthers a 35-34 lead with 2:54 to play.

That still left time for Briarwood quarterback Christopher Vizzina to try and reel the game back in for the Lions after doing so in the final drive of two consecutive one-possession victories.

Pelham’s defense, however, had other plans.

The Panthers, who had given up touchdowns on four consecutive drives between the second and third quarter, flipped a switch defensively in the second half and came up big against the state’s best quarterback to cement a thrilling victory.

On three consecutive plays, Pelham’s defense tackled Vizzina at the line of scrimmage, including on fourth-and-5 to close out a 35-34 win over the No. 7 Lions.

“They’ve won last possession the last two weeks, so we figured we’d give that a shot and try to do what they’ve been doing,” head coach Mike Vickery said after the thrilling win. “We’re just proud of our kids. They came back, they kept fighting.”

The comeback win saw Pelham overcome a 27-7 deficit at the half and a 34-14 deficit entering the final quarter of play to start region play 1-0 after two four-point non-region losses to start the season.

One of the most impressive shifts for the Panthers in the second half came on the defensive side.

After Vizzina and the Lions were picking apart the defense for the first two quarters and the first drive of the second half—scoring on five of six drives—Pelham didn’t give up another scoring drive after the opening drive to the second half.

“One possession at a time is what we challenged them with,” Vickery said. “You can’t get 20 points back in one possession, and they battled each possession. Even after a touchdown in the second half, they still came back and kept believing. I’m just really proud of our kids and our coaches to stay engaged and beat a well-coached football team with not just a super quarterback but super players around him. Anytime you get those wins, those are special.”

Briarwood took a 34-14 lead with 6:35 left in the third quarter on a 24-yard touchdown run from Evan Robson, and at that point, it looked as if the game was going to be put out of reach.

Pelham, however, came back in the first three minutes of the final quarter and was able to cut the deficit back to 13 points when a reverse to Darius Copeland ended in a 14-yard touchdown run to make it 34-21 with 9:47 left to play.

Still, a win seemed out of reach when Pelham failed to convert fourth-and-8 with 6:07 left, turning the ball over on downs to Briarwood at the Panthers’ 27-yard line.

It looked as if the Lions had added to the lead shortly after on a 25-yard touchdown run from Vizzina, but a penalty brought it back, and eventually, Pelham forced a turnover on downs that shifted the momentum.

Right after, the Panthers capitalized when Mains hit Copeland for a 79-yard touchdown pass to make it 34-28 with 4:08 to play.

Pelham failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, but the defense quickly made up for that.

They not only forced a three-and-out, but the Lions ultimately decided to go for it on fourth-and-7 from midfield, ultimately ending with a sack and giving Pelham the ball back with 3:05 to play at the Briarwood 43.

Sure enough, Mains stepped up and capitalized again. This time, it was the connection with Corkill for 43 yards to make it 35-34 with 2:54 left.

“He’s going to get better and better every week. He’s a great athlete who hasn’t played a lot of football yet,” Vickery said of the stellar second half from Mains. “We missed some plays early and felt some opportunities were there early, but that’s a part of maturity and growing. Then, in the second half, they stepped up and made those plays. They stayed engaged and kept believing and made some plays in the second half.”

From there, the defense capitalized on the momentum it had gained to finish off the win.

“If you give him time, it’s hard to hold up in coverage against him because he can make every throw on the field,” Vickery said of Vizzina’s presence and the adjustments they had to make. “We just kept grinding and just started to get some more pressure in the second half late in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter and started changing up some coverage giving some different looks and were able to finally get to him a few times.”

In the first half, Vizzina’s talent was on display.

A big first half for Briarwood was highlighted by more than 240 yards and four touchdowns from Vizzina, which led to the Lions taking command early.

Both teams scored on their opening drive of the game with the Lions striking first.

After receiving the opening kick, they used a strong drive on the ground to go 65 yards in less than four minutes. Vizzina scored his first touchdown of the night on a 2-yard run to cap off the drive and put Briarwood on top 7-0.

Pelham, however, had the early answer.

The Panthers used a strong opening drive from Mains to march down the field in 10 plays.

Mains reeled off runs of 10, 5, 7 and 21 yards throughout the drive, while he also hit Copeland for a 29-yard pass early in the drive. Mains then finished off the drive with one last run of 7 yards for the touchdown to even the score at 7-7 with 5:14 left in the opening quarter.

The two long drives ate up most of the clock in the opening period and were followed by defensive stands from each team.

In the second quarter, however, the Lions found a new gear with their offense.

Vizzina caught fire in the passing game, and Briarwood was able to go a perfect 3-for-3 in the quarter with three touchdown drives.

A 42-yard touchdown pass from Vizzina to Brady Waugh made it 14-7 with 9:13 left in the quarter, before the Lions came back with a strong drive that ended with another short touchdown pass from Vizzina to Waugh of 4 yards to make it 20-7 after a missed PAT.

With 2:29 left in the second quarter, they got one more stop defensively, and an offense that has shown comfort in the two-minute drill already this season went back to work.

In nine plays, Briarwood marched down the field, including one fourth-and-10 conversion on a 15-yard pass to Robert Beason.

Eventually, Vizzina hit Sawyer Russell from 14 yards out with eight seconds left in the half to make it 27-7 at the halftime break.

It completed a first half that saw Vizzina total 220 yards and three touchdowns through the air and another 20 on the ground with one touchdown.

When the second half started, it looked like it was going to be more of the same after the Lions took advantage of starting with the ball by scoring for the fourth drive in a row

But that was the final time Briarwood found the end zone in the loss.

“It’s great for confidence,” Vickery said. “You can talk and we know where we are as a program and a team and that we can win every game we play, but we also tell them we’re capable of not winning every game, so you have to go make the plays. You hear, you hear it, but you have to get those wins for them to see it. Learning new stuff and a new coach, you want them to get that win to see what can happen if we do things the way we draw it up.”