Harding rallies in 2nd half
AUSTINTOWN — The big showdown between second-seeded and unbeaten Fitch and seventh-seeded Harding changed as quickly as the weather did Friday night.
After being completely shut down in the first half, the Raiders, like a cold front, blew up during the second half to down the host Falcons, 24-10, in a Division II, Region 5 quarterfinal.
“We changed some offensive personnel groupings and that allowed us to have more success in the second half,” Harding coach Steve Arnold said after his team improved to 6-3 and avenged a 25-21 loss to host Fitch on Sept. 18. “We got the ball moving better late in the first half, but we came out with a bang when Mar’Kuan (Brown) had the big kickoff return to start the second half. Then Brysen (Powell) burst loose and scored on the first play (from scrimmage) in the second half and it changed everything.
“I thought in the first half, we were trying to do too much because we wanted this so bad. (Fitch) was on social media all week and I think our kids just wanted it too bad in the first half. But we settled down, made some adjustments and let our play on the field do our talking.”
Harding got a first down in its initial possession of the game, but did not get its second until under a minute remained in the half when the Raiders moved 61 yards in four plays to set up a 28-yard field goal attempt from Jake Daugherty with 1 second remaining. But a bobbled snap forced Elijah Taylor to roll left and his toss to the back of the end zone fell incomplete.
“They made adjustments that we didn’t make. I got outcoached,” said Falcons coach T.J. Parker, whose team fell to 7-1. “We’re going to learn from this and Falcon football will be back. It’s early in our careers. Tonight, I take full responsibility for this.”
The Falcons played much of the first half on the Raiders’ side of the field, due to a pair of short punts by Harding and a fumbled kickoff return.
But the second half was an entirely different story.
Brown returned the second-half kickoff 62 yards to the Fitch 34 and Powell darted through the left side of the Falcons line and scored on the next snap. Powell had 19 yards on seven carries until late in the first half and finished with 192 yards rushing on 24 carries.
After a three-and-out in Fitch’s first possession of the second half, Harding went 67 yards in six plays, as Powell accounted for 51 on four carries. Quarterback Elijah Taylor capped the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone to Deaveion Burgess, who made a diving grab for a 14-10 Raiders lead.
The Falcons then faced a fourth-and-2 from their own 31 and tried a fake punt, but Nate Leskovac’s pass fell incomplete.
“I made a bad decision there, but we wanted to change the momentum,” Parker said. “I thought the play would be there for us to make that pass, but give Harding credit, they covered it up well.”
Harding made the decision costly, as Taylor scored six plays later on a 3-yard QB sneak to make it 21-10.
“I’m so proud of our guys because they came here and nothing went right in that first half and we’re down 10-0, but we just kept playing the game,” Arnold said. “They trusted what in us to make the changes. Boy, that kickoff return just ignited us.”
Brown also picked off a pass and returned it 45 yards to the Fitch 6-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. It set up a 21-yard field goal from Daugherty to account for the final score.
In the first half, the Falcons scored all of their points in the second quarter as Josiah Berni made a 28-yard field goal and Tyler Evans snagged a 16-yard touchdown pass from Devin Sherwood, who was 14-for-26 passing for 126 yards with two interceptions.