For the second week in a row, Stratford found itself in position to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat. This time, however, the deficit from being gashed in the first half by the run and short passing game of Aquinas was too much to overcome, as a third-down run in the closing minutes by Fighting Irish quarterback John Paul enabled Aquinas to get the win and recapture the GHSA Class 7A region title with a 30-27 victory.
The win gives Aquinas (7-3) a likely first-round bye in the state playoffs with the Eagles (9-1) expected to play at home in the first round.
Stratford was playing without standout defensive lineman Tobe Umerah due to injury, and Aquinas took full advantage of his absence, using a time-consuming mixture of short passes and power running to lead 20-7 at halftime and 30-14 early in the fourth quarter before the Eagles made it close before coming up short.
Four who mattered
Christian Palmer: He threw just two passes in the first half, but the Stratford quarterback brought the Eagles within an eyelash of the lead in the second half, going 7-of-18 for 84 yards as he spread the Irish defense out. Not only did he get Stratford in position to close the Aquinas deficit to 30-20 on a 10-yard run by Deondre Duehart, but he also capped off another pass-heavy drive by keeping the ball near the goal line to make the Irish advantage 30-27.
Duehart: Not only did the Eagles running back rush for 107 yards, but he scored a pair of touchdowns as well.
John Paul: There was hardly anything fancy to his passing success in the first half with all but two completions being fewer than 10 yards — and the two exceptions were short passes that Aquinas running backs turned into longer gains. He hurt the Eagles on the ground in the second half by way of the speed option, rushing for 76 yards early in the fourth quarter on a play that gave Aquinas a seemingly comfortable 30-14 lead.
George Welch: Despite not being 100 percent due to fighting off an ankle injury, Welch was a big reason that Aquinas kept Stratford spread out defensively in the first half, helping to eat up clock with nine catches for 84 yards.
Down by three, the Eagles needed a third-down stop in the closing minutes to force Aquinas to punt. After appearing to stop Paul short, the Irish quarterback powered through Stratford defenders for the win-clinching first down.
Trench War: Aquinas clearly took note of Umerah’s injury, running the ball toward the Eagles defensive line and dumping off short passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage multiple times. As a result, the Eagles defense was worn down in a big way during the first half and its offense was kept on the sideline. The first two scoring drives of the game for Aquinas consisted of 16 and 14 plays, respectively. A tunnel screen to Welch set up the final Aquinas score of the first half, a three-yard pass to Welch from Paul for a 20-7 lead at the break.
Flying Back: Perhaps it should not be a surprise that Stratford fought back. After all, this was the same team that rallied last Friday to beat Tattnall. Down 30-13, the Eagles started throwing it, and did so with success. A 15-play drive, seven of which were pass plays, made it 30-20 on Duehart’s second touchdown of the night. Then, after an onside kick was recovered by Stratford, a 53-yard drive kept alive by a fourth-down pass from Palmer and a third-down run by Duehart, it was all capped off by a keeper courtesy of Palmer, and the Eagles trailed 30-27 with 3:13 to play. Aquinas, however, recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
They said it
Stratford head coach Mark Farriba on the Eagles comeback: “We tried to give ourselves a chance in the second half, but it’s just tough when you get yourself in a hole like that. You have to give (Aquinas) credit, they came out and executed their plan well I was real proud of our guys, I thought they did a good job of getting us back in it and gave us a chance.”
Farriba on Stratford’s defense in the second half: “We had to make a couple of adjustments that helped us out. You just can’t spot good teams that many points to start with, it makes it very uphill.”
Both teams will continue their seasons in the state playoffs. First-round opponents and possible bye weeks will be determined by the yet to be released power ratings.
AQUINAS, 30 STRATFORD 27
Aquinas 7-13-3-7 — 30
Stratford 0-7-7-13 — 27
A - Joseph Douglas 1 run (Crimmins Hankinson kick)
S - Tyler Jordan 1 run (Jake Jamison kick)
A - John Parrish 5 pass from John Paul (Hankinson kick)
A -George Welch 3 pass from Paul (Hankinson kick failed)
S - Duehart 19 run (Jamison kick)
A - Hankinson 26 field goal
A - Paul 57 run (Hankinson kick)
S - Duehart 10 run (Pass failed on interception)
S - Palmer 2 run (Jamison kick)
Aquinas - Stratford
19-25-1, 194 yards, 8-19-0, 84 yards
RUSHING: Aquinas: John Paul 19-101, Joseph Douglas 3-13. Stratford: Deondre Duehart 15-107, Tyler Jordan 12-55.
PASSING: Aquinas: John Paul 19-24-0, 194 yards, Joseph Douglas 0-1-0. Stratford: Christian Palmer 8-19-0, 84 yards
RECEIVING: Aquinas: George Welch 9-84, Bradley White 1-59. Douglas 4-40. Stratford: Jamie O’Quinn 3-38, Dell Sikes 3-32.