ROCKVILLE -- For one half at Rockville High School, South Putnam looked as vulnerable as it had in the second half against Tri-West.
The Rox were blasting holes in the Eagle defense. The offense was stagnant, managing to collect two first downs. Seemingly every call, every break was going against the visitors.
But just before halftime, a Rockville drive stalled out at the one-yard line, a missed field goal keeping the score at 12-0 in favor of the hosts.
Rockville hadn't put away the Eagles. They learned quickly they should have.
A vastly improved second half performance saw South Putnam score 19 unanswered points before a wild series of events in the last five minutes unfolded. By the end of it, the Eagles had a 27-20 victory and proved to themselves and everyone watching that they could overcome adversity.
Rockville wasted little time in opening the scoring. Returning the opening kick to their own 48-yard line, the Rox struck pay dirt in under three minutes as the combination of sophomore quarterback Clint White and senior running back Tyler Bradburn chewed up 51 yards on five of the first six plays of the game, finishing with Bradburn's seven-yard touchdown run.
The Eagles tried to respond in kind but their opening drive, their most successful one of the half, ended after a holding call denied them a first down deep in Rockville territory.
It was then the Rockville passing took center stage as a 29-yard completion from White to receiver Joel Wittenmyer was followed by an interception as Grant Zimmerman picked off his opposite positional man just outside of the Eagle end zone.
The next few possessions were of little success going either direction, but in the second quarter the Rox put together a nine play drive that gave them a 12-0 lead.
White's arm was again the focal point, as he was 3-4 for 59 yards on the drive. It was the one incompletion, however, that raised the ire of the staff the most. Rob Gibson appeared to have picked off White and gone forward several steps but then had the ball knocked loose.
Instead of a fumble, however, it was ruled incomplete. Two plays later, White picked out senior Kris Nickle for a first down at the Eagle five-yard line and would finish the job off himself with a quarterback sneak that gained three yards and six points.
The Rox were in position to score twice more, but a second interception, recorded by Dean Varvel in the end zone as Corey Stanton had his arms around White and a missed field goal right at the end of the first half prevented the Rox from playing add on and kept the Eagles within striking distance.
South Putnam's halftime huddle was probably not the place to be when the coaches were in the area, but, as head coach Troy Burgess said after the game, it was the seniors who rallied the team.
"The seniors took the initiative at halftime to challenge everybody. The two vocal leaders are Seth Arnold and Brayden Freeman," Burgess said. "They challenged the seniors and the rest of the guys to step up in the second half, and you could see that in the play."
With renewed vigor, South Putnam took the opening kickoff and began a 10 play drive that got them on the board. With senior tailback Brayden Freeman shouldering most of the load, the Eagles went from their own 19 after a holding call all the way in for six. Gibson aided the effort with a 40-yard reception in between six Freeman carries.
The drive was finished by the senior running back with a powerful 10-yard run and a late hit penalty that was assessed on the following kickoff. The score was then followed by offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct calls and a missed extra point, raising tensions in a game that had been very one-sided in the first half.
Rockville tried to answer back but their next possession stalled at the Eagle 38-yard line as while threw three incomplete passes before turning the ball over on downs.
South Putnam then got very aggressive, smashing out a first down by using the same play four times, flipping around on fourth down to get the first down and setting the tone for the rest of the contest.
Though the possession was nearly derailed by another holding call, the Eagles leaned on the broad shoulders of Freeman as he was involved in the last six plays of the drive, compiling 47 yards via the ground and air, including a 1-yard dive for the tying score. Jake Gould hit the extra point and a minute into the fourth quarter, the Eagles held a 13-12 lead.
Rockville once again had a drive stall out in South Putnam territory, this time only gaining nine yards on a fourth and 10 from the South Putnam 40-yard line and looked stunned when five plays later, Zimmerman connect with Varvel for a 58 yard touchdown pass. The two-point conversion failed as junior fullback Wade Custis was stopped short of the goal line, leaving the score at 19-12.
Rockville, now desperate for a score, looked to put a drive together but found themselves in trouble after a Seth Arnold sack of White. At their own 35-yard line, White heaved up a floater that was fair game for Gibson.
It was at this point that the game began to become surreal.
Gibson snared the ball with two hands while Wittenmyer was barely able to get a single hand on it. It was originally ruled an interception but, after a quick conference, was given as a Rockville first down. A stunned South Putnam was soon wild with cheers as White was picked off by Varvel for a second time at the Eagle one-yard line.
The Eagles looked to grind out the 3:40 left on the clock, but two plays later, Zach Smith fumbled as he was trying to gain a couple of extra yards and the ball was recovered by Jon Pierce of Rockville. At the Eagle 15-yard line, the Rox needed only three plays for White to run it in himself and bring the score 19-18. After a timeout, Rockville's two-point conversion was complete to Wittenmyer and the hosts finally grabbed the advantage again at 20-19.
After the kickoff, the Eagles had a mere 1:33 seconds to get into scoring position. Zimmerman hit Gibson with a 17-yard strike but went down with cramps after the play. Freshman Sawyer Arnold had to step in, making sure to get the snap and hand it off to Freeman before Zimmerman returned.
Things went from wacky to beyond belief on the next play as, after a South Putnam timeout, Zimmerman fired a strike to Varvel. Thinking he was aiming to get out of bounds, Rockville defenders swarmed to Varvel, failing to notice Gibson flying towards his teammate.
One small pitch and the hook and ladder had Rockville reeling.
Gibson exploded up the Eagle sideline for the remaining 35 yards and the go-ahead score. Varvel was rewarded as he caught the two-point conversion attempt and completed the second half turnaround to make the score 27-20.
Sawyer Arnold, handling the kicking duties, promptly hit the next kickoff out of bounds, giving the Rox the ball at the 40 yard line and 50 seconds to come up with a response.
The mistake would matter little, however, as the first pass White delivered was to the arms of Gibson, who fell to the turf, watched Zimmerman take two knees and celebrated after a wild finish.
Burgess said there was nothing complicated about
the winning play.
"It's just something you draw up in the dirt. They (Gibson, Varvel, Zimmerman) know enough about football and have enough football knowledge to do it and they timed it up perfectly for us."
"Even if it didn't score, we needed about twenty more yards, to get down to the 20-yard line and give Jake (Gould) a chance to kick a field goal. He's banged up, but I figured he could kick one for us if need be."
Even with the excitement of the win still visible, Burgess knew North Putnam was the next opponent and that preparation for that contest would have to begin soon.
"Last year, we scored on the first drive and then fell apart. We have to take care of ourselves. Getting the guys up for the game shouldn't be an issue. The challenge is getting them to play four quarters. This game is supposed to be a rivalry. We have to be ready to go."
"(North) is a great football team. Our kids have to believe that they can play with this team."
South Putnam 0 0 6 21 -- 27
Rockville 6 6 0 8 -- 20
Next game -- South Putnam hosts North Putnam Friday.