BURTONSVILLE – Valuable seconds were ticking off the game clock. If the visiting Springbrook Blue Devils varsity football team wanted to spoil the Paint Branch Panthers’ undefeated season, the time was now.
Then, Dejuan Johnson came out of nowhere. The senior defensive back intercepted Springbrook quarterback Trevon Ruffin as the buzzer signaled the end of the game and the Paint Branch bench flooded onto the field.
In a game marred by penalties and dropped passes, the Panthers clawed their way to a 28-25 victory and a 5-0 start to their season.
“I was telling all my teammates to just hold them and not give up any big plays. Then the ball came and I made a play with the help of my teammates,” said Johnson of his crucial interception. “For me and the whole team to come out there after being down for most of the game and then coming back, it was a hard-fought win and I think we deserved it.”
The two rival squads traded leads for most of the game. While wide receiver Dhedhus Anumgba and tight end Jordan Griffin both scored early to put Paint Branch on the board, costly first-half penalties hobbled the Panthers.
In fact, Paint Branch was penalized 11 times in the first half for 100 total yards. The Blue Devils capitalized on their opponent’s mistakes when Ruffin connected with wide receiver Dontaye “Bam Bam” Hunt as time expired in the second quarter. Hunt raced into the end zone with arms outstretched and went to the ground for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Blue Devils opened the second half with a long, calculated drive that ate plenty of time off the clock. That drive came to a screeching halt when Anumgba, who also plays defensive back, intercepted Ruffin at the Paint Branch 16-yard line.
A few plays later, Panthers running back Sam Doku surged through a large hole in the Springbrook defense, broke a tackle and dove into the end zone to take back the lead. Doku finished with 124 yards on the ground.
On Springbrook’s next possession, Ruffin rolled his way into the red zone for a 12-yard run as senior running back Tre’Von Stewart ran ahead of his quarterback and pushed defenders out of the way.
Ruffin then tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Markell McDaniels, who came down with the ball in the paint despite being surrounded by Panthers defenders.
A botched snap then led to a Springbrook safety and a five-point Blue Devil lead with just seven minutes left to play.
The Paint Branch offense took the field for the last time with its undefeated season on the line. However, a slew of incomplete passes caused a fourth-and-long situation that was mitigated by a pass interference call on Springbrook.
“That was a terrible call by the refs. We played a heck of a game and fought back and forth and for them to take the game in their own hands on just a really terrible pass interference call when we’ve been battling all game…but we don’t make excuses,” said Springbrook head coach Jason Lomax.
The Blue Devils brought the heat defensively and forced the Panthers to convert another fourth down.
There were only 36 seconds left when Paint Branch quarterback Norman Douglas threaded the ball through the Springbrook defense and into the waiting arms of wide receiver Ishmael Agbodzah. Agbodzah emerged out of the end zone, holding the ball aloft as cheers rained down onto the field.
Douglas’ quarterback sneak completed the two-point conversion and then Johnson’s interception a few seconds later sealed the deal for the Panthers.
“They showed grit and resiliency, I can say that. But to get where we want to get to, we just have to get so much better,” said Paint Branch head coach Mike Nesmith. “We’re running out of time to do so. We’re playing an outstanding Quince Orchard team next week. We’ve got a week to get it together.”
Lomax appeared confident that his team would be able to recover from such a last-minute loss.
“They’ll be fine. We’ve built a strong will and there’s nothing that’s going to break us down. Nothing,” he said. “I love their spirit, I love their heart. They never gave up the whole game.”