La Salle back Nick Rinella on the run. (Photo by Jonathan Vander Lugt)

La Salle back Nick Rinella on the run. (Photo by Jonathan Vander Lugt)

by Jonathan Vander Lugt

What’s football all about?

If you’re a pessimist (maybe realist), it’s about head trauma.

If you’re old-fashioned, it’s related, but different. It’s about hits. Big, fast human beings making big, fast, loud tackles.

For many though, it’s about sitting outside on a chilly autumn night with a couple of extra layers on. Maybe sipping on some hot cocoa. You hear a pep band in the background and know that you’re about to see a pair of teams play for little more than pride or the love of the game. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some real talent.

For those types of folks, the matchup at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School between the Explorers of La Salle College High School and the Archbishop Wood Vikings was nothing but a dream. The perennial Philadelphia Catholic League powers lived up to their billing in Wood’s 27-24 win, delivering a big lead, a big comeback, and even a last-second field goal.

It didn’t look like it was going to be that way for a while. Led by the Rutgers-bound QB Anthony Russo, Wood raced out to a 21-0 lead.

“The first half, when we started, we weren’t playing solid football,” Explorer running back Syaire Madden said. “We made a lot of mistakes fundamentally, and that’s why we got beat. In the first quarter, everybody comes out, they’re all excited and they’re thinking too fast. If we can just slow our thinking down, everything becomes clearer.”

Quarterback Chris Ferguson agreed.

“In that first half, we were thinking too much,” Ferguson said. “We were trying to do a little too much as well.”

That translated into little, if any, production. Russo played like the D-I prospect he is, and torched La Salle’s defense to the tune of 183 yards. All three touchdowns came through the air, and he didn’t discriminate when it came to spreading the ball around: eight receivers caught at least one pass, led by Mark Webb and Raheem Blackshear, who each had 61 yards in the half.

Offensively, the Explorers played more like nomads – wandering and directionless. Four of their five drives in the half were three-and-outs. They had one drive that lasted a while: a fruitless 58-yard journey that ended in a missed field goal, but otherwise, La Salle tallied just negative-six yards.

So, in total, it was probably the worst half of football that the Explorers could have hoped for.

“Before the second half, we had a long talk and coach told us, whether we win or lose, we’re La Salle football so we play with pride and pick our heads up,” Madden said. “Anything less was unacceptable.”

Again, the team’s signal-caller echoed Madden’s sentiments.

“There are three things we always say: poise, discipline, and La Salle,” Ferguson said. “Poise is about keeping composure when things get tough and staying strong. Discipline is just playing disciplined football and doing your job. La Salle is just wearing that ‘L’ on your chest, representing the school and each other.”

“That describes the second half perfectly,” he continued. “We just have to put it together in the first half.”

Immediately, in the third, the Explorers got the ball rolling. Madden ripped off runs of 42 and 15 yards on their first drive of the half, leading to a field goal for La Salle’s first points.

The Explorers found their way into the end zone on their next drive, a 41-yarder capped by Ferguson’s two-yard QB sneak.  Blackshear fumbled away the first play on the subsequent Viking drive, and Ferguson came right back with a 25-yard strike to Nick Rinella.

In the blink of an eye, an 18-point advantage had evaporated to just four.

“We had a really good balance,” Ferguson said. “We ran the ball well, threw the ball well, and everything was just working out.”

“I was more patient in the second half,” said Madden, who finished with 137 yards and a touchdown on the ground (to go along with a 32-yard catch). “In the first half, I was running and wasn’t following my blocks and trusting my linemen. In the second half, I literally just trusted them and let them do their thing, and I did my thing. I attacked the hole, and everything was working.”

Archbishop Wood came back and got a field goal on its next drive, extending the lead to a touchdown with seven minutes to play. La Salle answered, engineering another clutch drive led by 49 yards and a touchdown on the legs of Madden.

The Vikes did enough to get into field goal range, and with a great deal of pressure, Dan Zanine nailed a 25-yarder with 2.1 seconds on the clock. Because of the way the PCL is structured, where teams battle for class-size championships (La Salle is AAAA, and Wood is AAA), the game didn’t quite have as much conference implication as it had name value, but it was still the best test the Explorers could have wanted heading into their game next week against St. Joe’s Prep.

The rivalry game between the two league powers is huge: both teams are AAAA, and among the best in the state. Anyone hoping to catch the show at PW should try to get there about an hour and a half early, just to find parking.

“We saw our potential and what we could be in the second half,” Madden said. “With that, we know we can play with anybody.”

The Prep included.

“We’ve got to look at what we did and just learn from it and execute every time,” he added.