On a night when his team needed him most, the sometimes “forgotten man” of the Tuscarora football team came through in a big way.
Senior receiver Nic Speroni had six receptions for 160 yards Friday at Potomac Falls. But none was bigger than the 42-yard scoring play with 28 seconds left in the game that gave the visiting Huskies a 21-20 victory in a Group 5A Conference 14 contest at Panther Stadium.
That catch and the subsequent point-after by junior Yassine Elmellouki gave Tuscarora (7-0, 2-0 Conference 14) its first lead of the night and allowed the Huskies to escape with a victory over a consistently improving Potomac Falls (4-2, 0-2) team.
“People forget about him,” Tuscarora head coach Michael Burnett said of Speroni. “He’s a program kid. He’s had a lot of super-talented players around him and doesn’t get a lot of attention and credit. But he shows up every day and works every day and waits his turn. Tonight was his night and that’s what you love to see.”
The game-winning play was actually not drawn up to go to Speroni. Tuscarora senior quarterback Daniel Smith (13-of-23 passing for 203 yards) said the designed play was for the pass to go to senior Jonathan Roebuck (two catches, 25 yards) on a comeback route, but he felt Speroni could get deep for a big play.
“I knew Speroni could beat that safety, I knew he could run by him,” Smith said. “I just waited for Nic to get on his toes and I threw it up for him.”
“It was nerve-wracking for me, seeing the ball in the air,” Speroni said. “But I came down with it, so all is well.”
Speroni and Smith connected twice for touchdowns in the second half, including an 80-yard play that tied the game at 14-14 late in the third quarter. Smith hit Speroni on a quick out on the left side and Speroni used his speed to turn the corner and run away from the Panthers defense.
“We practiced that play all week,” Speroni said. “Normally, it’s supposed to get a couple of yards, but I turned to the outside and turned on the jets.”
The way the game started, it did not appear Tuscarora would get those opportunities. After a 53-minute delay due to lightning in the area, Potomac Falls came out ready to play and took advantage of an opportunistic offense.
On their second possession, the Panthers surprised the Huskies by going to the air. Senior quarterback Brady Williams (7-of-14 passing for 128 yards with two touchdowns and an interception) found junior Kaevon Chase (3 catches, 73 yards) for a 45-yard gain to the Tuscarora 25-yard line. Faced with a fourth down and 17 situation moments later, sophomore running back Grant Misch slipped out of the backfield and was all alone along the left sideline for a 32-yard touchdown reception that gave Potomac Falls a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Midway through the second quarter, senior Tommy Hardman became the featured Panther. Opening the drive at the Tuscarora 45, Williams passed to Hardman for 11 yards, then he rushed 17 yards to a first down at the Huskies 13. Two plays later, Hardman scored from the 8 for a 14-0 lead.
“Coach [Paul] Barnes is an outstanding offensive coordinator and he looked at what our strengths are and played to those strengths,” Potomac Falls head coach Jason Allen said. “We wanted to keep balanced and we were able to do that.”
“Everybody knows Potomac Falls is a different team this year,” Burnett said. “They are a tough matchup for us and they took advantage of that, especially in the first half. Their pass plays were well designed and they executed well.”
Meanwhile, the Panther defense was finding ways to blank Tuscarora in the first half for the first time this season. The Huskies gained 132 total yards over the first 24 minutes, but Potomac Falls found ways to stop them three times in Panther territory on fourth down.
“They got stops in the first half and that was the difference,” Burnett said. “We moved the ball, but we weren’t able to convert. We had to make some adjustments at halftime.”
One of those adjustments was starting senior Taj Malave-Neely at tailback in the second half. Senior James Douglas (22 rushes for 100 yards and a touchdown) had gained 94 yards in the first half, but Burnett had a hunch that Malave-Neely – who did not have a carry in the first half – could give the Huskies a needed boost.
He was right. On the first play of the third quarter, Malave-Neely (8 rushes, 47 yards) burst off right tackle for 36 yards. He carried four more times for nine yards in the nine-play drive that ended with another turnover on downs in Potomac Falls territory, but Malave-Neely had given the Huskies a spark and it resulted in Douglas scoring to put Tuscarora on the scoreboard late in the third.
“I kind of looked in Taj’s eyes and saw he was hungry,” Burnett said. “I had a sense that he wanted to be on the field, so I made a last-second decision to start him in the second half. He may have been the spark plug that really got us going. His play changed the whole dynamic of the half.”
“At halftime, we were mad at ourselves,” Smith said. “We didn’t execute very well or play very well. Taj was a little angry at himself and I told him ‘I need you here.’ He answered with a couple of big runs to start the second half. That showed this team doesn’t quit.”
Despite the loss, Allen is pleased with how his Panthers played against the defending 5A state runner-up.
“We didn’t go into the game expecting to lose,” Allen said. “We think we’re as good as anyone else in this conference. We knew they were going to fight to the end; that’s what champions do. They just executed better than us at the end of the game.
“We tell [our players] we take one game at a time,” Allen added. “We’ve got 24 hours to get over this one. The goal of our program was to turn these players into winners for life, and the scoreboard doesn’t dictate that. It’s their attitude, their work ethic, it’s what they bring to the table. We’re getting better every game.”
Burnett sees the same resolve in his Huskies, who won for the 21st time in their last 22 games.
“Win or lose, you want to build kids and character,” Burnett said. “Tonight, there were a lot of chances for them to quit and say it’s not our night. But these kids don’t feel that way. We aim so high and expect so much and they live up to it.
“There are times in games when you feel your team quit and turning on each other,” Burnett added. “You don’t know until you face those moments how they’ll react. We faced that moment and the energy, the enthusiasm, the support for each other made me proud.”
TUSCARORA 21, POTOMAC FALLS 20
Tuscarora (7-0, 2-0) 0 0 14 7 -- 21
Potomac Falls (4-2, 0-2) 7 7 0 6 -- 20
PF – Misch 32 pass from Williams (Nemer kick), 2:42
PF – Hardman 8 run (Nemer kick), 4:43
T – Douglas 2 run (Elmellouki kick), 2:56
T – N. Speroni 80 pass from Smith (Elmellouki kick), 0:23
PF – Chase 15 pass from Williams (kick failed), 8:23
T – N. Speroni 42 pass from Smith (Elmellouki kick), 0:28
RUSHING – Tuscarora, Douglas 22-100, Malave-Neely 8-47, Smith 8-41; Potomac Falls, Jackson 9-43, Hardman 6-42, Misch 9-29, Lewis 1-6, Williams 5-(minus-17).
PASSING – Tuscarora, Smith 13-23-0-203; Potomac Falls, Williams 7-14-1-128.
RECEIVING – Tuscarora, N. Speroni 6-160, Roebuck 2-25, Malave-Nely 2-5, Biebighauser 1-9, Sampson 1-3, Douglas 1-1; Potomac Falls, Chase 3-73, Hardman 3-23, Misch 1-32.
MISSED FIELD GOALS – None