The Panthers kept getting back up.
The Golden Eagles and its high-flying offense came as advertised, scoring eight touchdowns with over 500 yards of total offense. Central scored on five straight drives in the first half and then three straight in the second half. A lot of teams would have folded, at least at some point.
But not this Franklin team. Not these Panthers.
The top-seeded Panthers had four first half touchdowns of their own and three more in the second, cutting the deficit to just three at 44-41 in the fourth quarter.
There was no denying the Golden Eagles though, who were nearly flawless on the offensive side of the ball. Central junior quarterback William Watson (20-for-23, 398 yards, five touchdowns) needed just four plays to respond, tossing his fourth touchdown of the day less than two minutes later and the Golden Eagles went on to secure a 60-49 win and a spot in the Division 1 State Final.
“That’s a great team,” Franklin head coach Eian Bain said of his opposition. “I’m so proud of our kids, their preparation, and just how much they care. It was a tough game plan that we tried to put in…we had to be as perfect as we could and part of that was putting in a great effort because we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Our kids believe in what we do and they competed for four quarters.
“This is the time of year that you want to be playing. There’s a lot of teams at home that wish they were playing still. Whether you win or lose today, as long as you put your best foot forward and compete your butt off — and I think we did that. That’s what we want, just to play meaningful games in November. We’re one of the last handful teams in the state and that’s something to be proud of.”
Central just had too many weapons for Watson to work with. Even when the Panthers had great coverage, Watson made things happen with his feet, either taking it himself or moving around long enough until someone got open.
Joseph Griffin had nine catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns, Tykarryon Daniels hauled in six passes for 98 yards and a score, and freshman Mattias Barbour grabbed three second half passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
But anytime it looked like the Eagles might pull away, Franklin responded.
Central had a 30-14 lead midway through the second but the Panthers quickly answered three minutes later. The Golden Eagles made it 38-21 with just 1:59 left in the first half before the Panthers answered 90 seconds later. Even down 44-34 in the second half, faced with a fourth down, Franklin answered the call and made it a one-score game.
“We knew there was a really good chance they would score some points today…we just had to ignore the scoreboard,” Bain said. “It’s hard to say that…it’s always our philosophy, even if you’re up, or it’s tight, or you’re behind, you have to stick with your plan. But we really had to do that today. The game could sway really quick on a mistake but the difference was their offense didn’t really make any mistakes.”
Franklin’s ideal start quickly soured as Central scored less than two minutes into the game. The Panthers’ defense forced a three-and-out on the first series of the game but two plays into their own first drive, senior Cory Coward ripped the ball free and returned it into the red zone. Two plays later, Tariq Thomas (12 carries, 51 yards) got around the edge for a 6-0 lead.
The Panthers responded with a 13-play, 73-yard drive — converting three third downs along the way — as senior quarterback Jared Arone (37-for-50, 315 yards, four touchdowns) sent Shane Kindred (11 catches, 138 yards, touchdown) in motion from left to right before firing it to him for an 8-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead with 5:40 left in the first quarter.
After a 33-yard pass on second down, Central was back in front after just four plays. Watson fired a 16-yard pass to Daniels while Kymari Latney ran the two-point conversion.
Back-and-forth they went as Franklin answered just five plays later as senior back Mack Gulla (18 carries, 132 yards, two touchdowns) broke free for a 41-yard scamper up the left side to make it 14-14.
Even with less than three minutes later in the quarter, that was enough for Central who scored despite a holding call. The Golden Eagles had a 42-yard touchdown taken off the board because of a hold but on the next play, Watson dropped a 54-yard dime to Griffin for a 22-14 lead after the first quarter.
Franklin had its only three-and-out of the game and its lone punt, a great boot off the foot of Garrett Portesi (5-for-6 on extra points). His punt pinned Central at its own 11-yard line and the Panthers’ defense got two stops including a tackle from Nick Quintina on one play and a combined stop from Cullen Pek and Jack Marino, forcing the Golden Eagles into 3rd and 9, but Watson found Griffin for 45 yards to move the sticks. Seven plays later, Thomas rushed in from four yards out for a 30-14 lead.
The Panthers went with some razzle-dazzle on its next play with receiver Will Tracey (16 catches, 131 yards, three touchdowns) passing it to Arone for 26 yards. Four plays later, the duo connected again with Arone tossing it to Tracey for a 6-yard touchdown to make it 30-21.
There was only 2:57 left in the half but in this game, that was enough time for both teams to score.
Thomas scored from 24 yards out to cap a 3-play, 57-yard drive for the Golden Eagles to go up 38-21 with 1:59 to go.
“I think the biggest thing is what we had to try and maximize every possession we had and we had to try and take one or two away from them on defense, and we were close,” Bain said. “We both only punted once, we knew it was going to be that type of game. We drove down the field multiple times, ran a lot of plays, set a lot of things up. As far as executing the game plan, our offense certainly did for the most part. Defensively, we had our hands full…we knew that going in.
“We needed to get a play or two and have a break go our way. In some ways we were close and in some ways we weren’t very close. We knew it was going to be a dogfight and that we would have to play near perfect. We played pretty well but just shy of perfect.”
The next stretch was key for the Panthers, who somehow got 11 plays off in less than two minutes. Arone hit Kindred for a pair of first downs on the drive as the clock ticked under a minute to go. Even a 15-yard spot holding call that pushed the Panthers back to the 40-yard line couldn’t slow the offense. Arone hit Kindred for 20 yards and then 19 yards, the latter a heck of a catch down to the 1-yard line. From there, Gulla bullied his way in to make it 38-27.
Franklin received the second half kickoff and orchestrated the exact drive it needed. Arone hit Tracey over the middle to move the sticks on fourth down and then hooked up with Arone for 25 yards. Two plays later, Arone floated one to the corner of the end zone and Tracey won the battle for a 20-yard touchdown as the Panthers pulled within four, 38-34, with 8:28 left in the third.
The momentum was short-lived as Central responded seven plays later. On second down, the Panthers stuffed the run for a 2-yard loss with help from Jay Gulla, Emmett Lackey, and Jonathan Martins, to force the Golden Eagles into 3rd and 10 but Watson connected with Barbour over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown.
“They’re always attacking,” Bain said of the Central offense, which faced just five third downs but converted four of them. “They might throw three straight incompletions and it’s fourth and 10 and then they just hit a big one. They have a lot of faith in the guys that they have, as do we…but it doesn’t matter what the situation is, they just go. And that creates issues for sure. Some teams you get into third and long and you’re going to get off the field but today it didn’t matter if it was third and a mile, they’re capable.”
There was no quit in the Panthers, who overcame a 9-yard loss on first down of its next series to score and make it a three-point game. Back-to-back catches from Tracey moved the sticks, and the combo of Arone to Tracey converted a fourth down on the first play of the fourth quarter. Three plays later, Gulla got around the edge on the left side and Portesi drilled the point after — helped by a great hold from Jase Lyons on a high snap — and it was 44-41 with 10:32 to play.
There was a big swing of the next two minutes. First, Watson hit Daniels over the middle for a 33-yard touchdown, plus a two-point rush from Latney. And on Franklin’s second play of the ensuing drive, the ball popped free and the Golden Eagles recovered. One play later, Watson hit Griffin — who made a spectacular catch in the end zone — for a 35-yard touchdown and a 60-41 edge with 8:18 to go.
Franklin answered one final time, marching 75 yards on 10 plays to get into the end zone. Kindred had a pair of first down catches, Gulla broke free for 13 yards and a first, and Arone hit Tracey on third and goal from 5 yards out to make it 60-49 with 4:12 to go.
Central was able to run out the clock the rest of the way.
Franklin football drops to 9-1 on the season but has one more game left as the Panthers will take on rival King Philip for the Kelley-Rex division title on Thanksgiving.