FOUNTAIN CITY — The Eastern Hancock Royals didn’t give up Friday night. Instead, they grew up.
Tired of shooting themselves in the foot, arm, hip and every which way, the Royals turned an 18-point deficit into 22 unanswered points in the second half to deflate the Northeastern Knights 28-24.
“We didn’t panic. We knew it was going to take some time and effort, so we just told them to worry about the fundamentals,” Eastern Hancock head coach Jim O’Hara said. “Just get first downs and don’t worry about the scoreboard.”
The Royals turned to each other in the final two quarters, and everything clicked on both sides of scrimmage.
Unable to slow down Northeastern senior Cole Retter in the first half, the Knights’ bulldozing rusher racked up 163 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
His first touchdown run measured 44 yards and his second capped a 12-play drive extending from the first quarter into the second to put Northeastern ahead 24-6.
The formerly unbeaten Knights (2-1) scored the first touchdown of the game on a 14-yard pass from Isiah Loftis to Hunter Kirkland and led throughout the first three quarters.
The Royals tried to match the Knights on their opening drive and nearly succeeded as quarterback Jarett Lewis connected with Luke Splater for a 9-yard touchdown strike. A failed 2-point conversion kept them down 8-6.
On the Royals’ next four possessions, they turned the ball over on downs twice and lost a fumble at nearly midfield, which setup Northeastern’s last scoring drive in the second quarter.
“We were not very good in the first half. Offensively, we were moving the ball and hurting ourselves. Defensively, their offense is tough to stop,” Eastern Hancock head coach Jim O’Hara said. “We made some adjustments and hats off to Clayton Shultz, the D-coordinator, and Mike Galyan, O-coordinator, it was a team effort.”
The comeback was a combination of trust and frustration, Lewis emphasized after completing 12 of 21 passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
“We were sick and tired of not having any momentum at all in the first half. Offensively, we stopped ourselves,” Lewis said. “In the second half, we got first downs, the offense was moving and the defense started to fill the holes and stopped Retter. He’s a good player.
“We really wanted to win this. We were tired of them running over us.”
The Royals applied the pressure in the second half as Northeastern recorded just two first downs compared to 12 in the first. They turned the ball over three times on fumbles, including on a muffed punt return that setup the go-ahead scoring drive for Eastern Hancock in the fourth quarter.
The Knights’ first lost fumble in the third quarter positioned the Royals on Northeastern’s 12, which Lewis converted into a 12-yard touchdown pass to Clayton Cochard on one play.
The next fumble on the Knights’ ensuing possession led to a 13-play drive by Eastern Hancock. A.J. Muegge capped the Royals’ 61-yard march with a 4-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit 24-21.
“Like coach says, that’s the motto: love and trust,” Lewis said. “That’s what we try to do. We love each other. The trust thing is getting better, especially tonight.”
The Royals finally pulled ahead for good in the fourth after a Knights’ lost fumble on a punt return put Eastern Hancock 52 yards away from the end zone. Five plays later, highlighted by a 33-yard touchdown pass from Lewis to Connor Bennett supplied the Royals with their first lead.
The defense held their ground the rest of the way. After limiting the opposition to 14 points through six quarters prior to kickoff, the Royals shutout the Knights in the final 33 minutes.
Muegge had 132 yards rushing for the Royals on 15 carries. Lewis, who had a lost fumble and an inconsequential interception late in the fourth, rushed for 31 yards rushing, while Spencer Maxwell added 78 yards rushing.
“This was a good win because we beat a very good football team,” O’Hara said. “They are tough to stop. We’re proud of our kids.”