It took 55 points, including a touchdown pass 59 seconds to go, but the Rome Free Academy football team took the win over Homecoming, 55-52 over Nottingham on Friday night at RFA Stadium.
The two Class AA teams fought for 48 minutes, exchanging leads overnight. But it was a defensive save by RFA in the dying seconds of the game that sealed the deal to send the Black Knights to 2-2 this season.
âOur kids did really well,â FRG head coach Jake DerCola said after the victory. âIt was back and forth. They never gave up. This last reader, they were on the fumes. Nottingham, I give them credit for making plays, but we made plays straight away. A heavyweight fight, blow for blow.
The teams have accumulated 107 points, including 64 in the first half. RFA trailed 52-40 after a 90-yard touchdown by Amor Caldwell with 10:55 left.
RFA reduced the lead to five when sophomore quarterback Evan Carlson-Stephenson threw a bubble screen at senior Nevaeh Baez, who ran 33 yards to pay for the dirt. Jack Lawless’s extra point brought the score to 52-47 Nottingham with 8:45 to go.
The Nottingham offense ran game after game to drain time. After 10 points, the Bulldogs had a bad rally in a transfer attempt and the FRG defense jumped on the ball to give the ball to the Black Knights offense to their own 10. They converted a fourth. and five at their 15 on a 25-yard incline towards Kaiden McCaskill. When they faced fourths and 10s at Nottingham 45, Baez took the field, then sent a pass over defense to Max Hunt, who managed the catch and went out of bounds at 19. After two incomplete, Carlson-Stephenson hit Lawless entering the end zone for the go-ahead score. A pass to Baez on the conversion brought the score to 55-52 with 59 seconds left.
The FRG defense got sacks from Carmelo Joubert and Ryan O’Connell in the second and third downs to force a fourth and 20 from Nottingham 44. Quarterback Jabari Diggs hit a high snap then rushed to the RFA five. A short run and then a spike to kill the timer set up a winning shot. After a delay in play and a touchdown canceled by a wait call, Nottingham had 1.6 seconds left and Diggs’ 22-yard pass into the end zone was knocked down by Lawless to secure the victory.
DerCola said the key on offense was to beat Nottingham man-to-man cover with seven players stacked in the box trying to stop the RFA run. âWe had to take advantage of it,â he said. âYour playmakers or our playmakers.â And beat the cover time and time again, that’s what Carlson-Stephenson did. The quarterback finished the night 23 for 40 for 296 yards and five touchdowns and two interceptions.
His primary target over the past two games, McCaskill, has said he’s using his basketball skills to his advantage. The 6-foot-4 wide receiver said cornerbacks rarely expected him to have the speed to go with his size advantage. And he’s built confidence with Carlson-Stephenson this season. “He threw it at me once and now he trusts me,” he said. And even when the team fell behind, he said the message was clear: âDon’t give up. If you give up, it’s a guaranteed loss.
Dayton Kelly helped keep the RFA offense balanced, running for 109 yards and one scoring. DerCola called him “a quiet leader” with determination, who made running, blocking and defending plays for the linebacker.
Baez, who delivers speed to Kelly’s power, “is a playmaker,” said DerCola. From his runs and passes to throws, âit wasn’t just one game,â the coach said of his contributions. He also had one of the biggest games in defense. With 30 seconds left in the first half, Nottingham’s Tristian Bell-Thomas was hit by O’Connell as he pushed the field back. The pass was picked up by Baez, who ran across the sideline for a 72-yard six.
âJust stay focused,â Baez said of the state of mind as the teams traded leads throughout the game.
For O’Connell, one of the team’s captains, the defensive game plan up front was, âLook at the ball, get the ball,â swarming the player with the ball with every play. said his message as captain when the team was lagging behind was, âCalm down. All you have, then start over.
RFA took the lead on his first possession, after forcing a punt from Nottingham. The Black Knights ran for 37 yards and finished with a 17-yard run from Baez, who took a Wildcat snap in the fourth and-1. The Bulldogs responded with their own scoring workout, a 14 play workout that covered 58 yards and featured all running plays. Diggs ran in two to tie the game at 6-6 with three seconds left in the first quarter.
RFA regained the lead when Carlson-Stephenson hit McCaskill on a 12-yard slant pass. McCaskill caught the ball in both and cut between the tackles to enter the end zone. Carlson-Stephenson had 5 of 7 passes over the drive for 44 yards. Kelly’s Wildcat line-up goaltender for the conversion was good and RFA led 14-6.
The Black Knights pushed their lead to 21-6 a few games later. Lawless’s looping kickoff was picked up by RFA after the back man was hit and the ball came loose. Carlson-Stephenson hit McCaskill again, this time passing 33 yards to the goal line, a jump ball that the wide receiver won. Lawless did the extra kick.
Nottingham responded again, this time on the second drive game that followed. Caldwell swept to the right and crushed a FRG defender a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage, then continued to the end zone for a 60 yards to bring the score to 21-14. The Bulldogs took the lead after a RFA punt. Bell-Thomas ran two yards after Caldwell hit Shadavies Williams on a 41-yard half-back option that passed the play before that. The visitors took a 22-21 lead after Diggs hit Bell-Thomas on the conversion attempt.
With 2:26 left in the first half, RFA took over at eight after a Nottingham punt. But Bell-Thomas intercepted a pass at close range and sent it back to RFA two. Diggs then scored a run to extend the lead to 30-21.
RFA would get two scores in the final 64 seconds of halftime to take a 34-30 lead at halftime. It was Kelly who first established her own touchdown run with a 49-yard rumble. He would end practice with a three-yard carry to the middle to make it 30-28 Nottingham. Baez’s defensive touchdown then gave RFA the lead at half-time.
Nottingham got the first score of the second half, a 13-yard run by Caldwell, and then a two-point conversion run in which he also ran. That made 38-34 for the visitors. Carlson-Stephenson’s connection to McCaskill worked again soon after, in the form of a 67-yard strike where the receiver split the cover and ran past the defense for the score. RFA regained the advantage, 40-38. But Nottingham picked it up, this time on a two-yard run from McGrew and a conversion run to make it 46-40 late in the third quarter.
The 2-2 Black Knights will now travel to Corcoran to play a game at 6 p.m. on Friday, October 1.