BURTONSVILLE – Paint Branch running back Justin Page held his helmet aloft as his teammates hoisted him onto their shoulders for a post-game photo op.
The Panthers had just run amok over the visiting Perry Hall Gators by registering over 400 yards rushing in the 4A North Regional Semi-Final game Friday en route to a 44-21 victory.
Page scored four of Paint Branch’s six touchdowns and finished with 183 yards rushing.
“I just stay low in the hole and run hard every play,” said Page of his dominant performance. “[This win] feels great and exciting but in a sense it’s expected because of all the work we’ve put in. We expect nothing less than a championship.”
The Panthers relied on a tried-and-true recipe to run down the clock and tire out the Perry Hall defense. Page and fellow running back Sam Doku split carries, pounding the rock over and over. Doku ran for 184 yards and one touchdown.
Paint Branch head coach Mike Nesmith said that the weather played a factor in his decision to primarily run the ball. The temperature was 32 degrees at kickoff and had dipped to 30 degrees by the time the game was over.
“We knew it was going to be cold and more challenging to throw the ball,” he said. “But we also saw on film that the way that [Perry Hall] played defensively, we could have some good opportunities in the running game if we stayed with it. We decided to take what they were giving us and just keep running the ball.”
The potency of the running game and a blocked extra point in the first half led to five two-point conversion attempts; four of them were successful.
At first, however, it appeared as though the Panthers were off to a slow start when a holding penalty negated what would have been a 19-yard touchdown by receiver De’Andre Reigle.
The Gators then answered receiver Ishmael Agbodzah’s 68-yard punt return with a long return of their own to tie the score at 14 at the end of the first quarter.
While Paint Branch took its time and ate precious minutes off the clock, the Gators rushed to the line of scrimmage with no huddle and fired off play after play.
However, Perry Hall failed to capitalize on several game-changing plays. A penalty erased a long run by running back Jarrett Gasque. The Gators recovered a fumble on a kick return with great field position but the Panthers intercepted quarterback Tyler Holley on the very next play. The next time the Perry Hall offense took the field, Paint Branch defensive lineman Alfonse Raule Adiama sacked Holley to bring up fourth-and-long.
Even after several missteps, the Gators managed to pull within nine points in the third quarter. Page made sure that Perry Hall didn’t mount a comeback as he burst loose for a 35-yard touchdown on Paint Branch’s next possession. The junior darted through a big hole in the Gator defense and broke two tackles for his third score of the evening.
Quarterback Miles Crouse replaced Holley in the fourth quarter after the latter exited the game due to injury. Crouse wasn’t on the field for long, however, since the Panthers orchestrated another lengthy drive that ended in Page’s fourth touchdown and put the game on ice for Paint Branch.
“They were really good. They were big and physical,” said Perry Hall head coach Keith Robinson. “We really had a tough time stopping their inside running game and that was the difference. We had a good season but we ran into the better team tonight.”
The Panthers move on to the 4A North regional finals game to face a familiar foe: undefeated Howard beat Paint Branch in the regional finals in 2014. This time, though, the Lions are coming to Burtonsville, and the Panthers will be prepared.
“It’s the rematch and this time it’s at our place,” said Nesmith. “Hopefully we can get some retribution this time.”
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