PENNSVILLE -- A botched snap on a PAT kick was the only thing keeping the Pennsville Memorial High School football team ahead of visiting Woodstown at halftime of Friday night’s South Jersey Group 1 playoff opener.
The third-seeded Eagles did a lot more to help themselves in the second half, forcing a pair of fumbles, recovering a pooch kickoff and keeping the visitors offense off the field, and in the process helped themselves to a 21-6 victory over the No. 6 Wolverines.
“We didn’t play smart football tonight,” said Pennsville coach Ryan Wood, referring in no small part to his team’s 12 penalties for 111 yards. “But we played hard, we played tough, we battled and fortunately we were able to overcome it.”
The Eagles (7-2 overall) also committed the only turnover of the first half, as an interception ended their opening drive of the game after nine minutes and 16 plays had brought them to the Woodstown 18. But despite not cashing in their first chance, the offense had enough success to be an aid to the defense and help keep Woodstown (6-3) away from the ball.
Pennsville ran nearly twice as many plays (70 to 37), converting 7-of-16 third-down chances and 5-of-5 on fourth down, and outgained the Wolverines 306 to 204. Senior quarterback PJ Halter was 16-of-25 passing for 185 yards and ran for a score, with senior wideout Logan Johnston his favorite target with 11 catches for 90 yards, and added four carries for 38 yards and a TD. Nick Bard rushed 26 times for 77 yards and a TD.
“We’re best friends off the field, so I guess it just kind of carries over,” Johnston said. “I love doing that kind of stuff (running the jet sweep), being able to experience these things. I think it’s fun. Any way I can help the team win, I like it.”
He did it just about every way possible Friday. Also the team’s talented kicker, Johnston went 3-for-3 on extra-point attempts, but his biggest contribution may have been on defense.
After the Eagles took a 21-6 lead with just over nine minutes to play, Woodstown looked poised to get right back into the game as quarterback Cody Wolf -- who ran for a 54-yard touchdown earlier in the game and a game-high 97 yards overall -- found Zechariah Johnson over the middle with a pass. The senior captain appeared ready to outrun the defense for a touchdown.
But Johnston came from behind and caught Johnson inside the 5, forcing a fumble in the process. Zach Battle recovered it at the 1-yard line to keep the Wolverines off the scoreboard.
“They always taught hustle until the play is over, and I knew I had a chance to get him because I know I’m fast myself,” said Johnston. “My first goal was to try and catch him and possibly bring him down to stop the touchdown, but I saw him carrying the ball out wide so I figured I could try to strip it.”
“It was just a great individual effort,” Wood said. “It was a great job by Battle not to quit on the play. I’m sure he knew he wasn’t going to make the tackle, but he stayed in the play and when Logan came out of nowhere and knocked (the ball) out … (Battle) was Johnny-on-the-spot.”
Battle had another recovery earlier in the second half, after Johnston’s 13-yard TD run made it 14-6. His follow-up kickoff didn’t go nearly as far as he wanted, but the inadvertent pooch kick surprised Woodstown and Battle recovered at the Woodstown 28. Halter scored nine plays later provided the final margin.
“You’ve always got to go until the whistle’s blown,” Battle said. “You never know when something’s going to happen, like that kickoff. He could’ve caught that…. He dropped it, and we were right there to recover it.”
“Turnovers are the name of the game,” said Wolverines assistant coach Frank Costello, who spoke after head coach John Adams rushed to the hospital to be with his pregnant wife after briefly talking to his team. “We thought our line played really well, but when you put the ball on the ground you’re going to set them up with good field position and it puts too much pressure on the defense….
“They’re real good in four-down territory. Their offensive line can get some momentum, their backs run hard. … We just needed to finish drives, and not beat ourselves with penalties and mistakes. It’s pretty much the story of the season, really.”
The story of Pennsville’s quest for a second straight sectional title will continue in the semifinals next week against the winner of Saturday’s Schalick-Paulsboro contest. It will be anything but easy, just as Friday’s victory was, but it’s something the Eagles are anxious to accomplish.
“We’re trying to play every game like it’s the last game of the season,” Johnston said. “We have to come in with the same mentality, that our (playoff) lives are on the line and it’s a must-win.”
“Pennsville football’s never gone back-to-back, so we’re just trying to make history here,” said Battle. “It would be big for us seniors that won the championship last year to … win it again and go out on a good note, with two championships in our pocket.”
Scott Chappelear writes for South Jersey Sports Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @srchappie.
SJ Group 1 Quarterfinals
Pennsville 21, Woodstown 6
Woodstown 0 6 0 0 -6
Pennsville 0 7 7 7 -21
P: Nick Bard 2 run (Logan Johnston kick)
W: Cody Wolf 54 run (pass fail)
P: Johnston 13 run (Johnston kick)
P: PJ Halter 3 run (Johnston kick)