Walking off the field after the first loss of Bishop Ireton’s season, quarterback P.J. Zingler’s shoulders were slumped. He’d nearly orchestrated a comeback victory but instead lost the game for his team in heartbreaking fashion.
Things had not gone well for the Cardinals heading into the second half of Saturday’s matchup with a then-winless Paul VI squad. The Panthers had cruised to three easy touchdowns, going ahead 21-7 at halftime.
They had kept Ireton’s vaunted offense in check, forcing Zingler to scramble in the face of an impressive pass rush. The Panthers also bogged down star running backs Moses Webb and Brandon Williams-Price.
The Cardinals had done little to help themselves. Their run defense was lacking. On special teams, more than one punt returner — Webb among them — had to scramble to pin down a live and loose ball. After a late third quarter interception, Zingler could only watch from the sidelines as the Panthers marched down the field to gain a 28-7 lead.
“We weren’t intense enough,” Zingler said. “We overlooked this game. They were 0-6, and we were thinking about the week ahead.”
Finally, with less than 10 minutes left on the game clock, Zingler and company began to look like their old selves. The junior put together a rapid drive to bring the Cardinals within two touchdowns of the Panthers.
Intent on running out the clock, the Panthers kept pushing on the ground, but quickly learned the Cardinals’ defense had stiffened. When a punt snap was bumbled deep in the Panther’s territory, Zingler found himself working with a short field.
On a game-defining fourth down just yards away from the end zone and time bleeding off the clock, the junior quarterback made it 28-21 with a tight pass to senior wide receiver Merid Merid.
With less than three minutes to play and facing a short field after an onside kick misfired for the Cardinals, the Panthers again turned to their running game. This time it was their turn to fumble, giving Zingler’s squad just less than two minutes to make their way about 60 yards down the field.
He orchestrated a near perfect two-minute drill, hitting Merid twice on the sidelines to get within striking distance of the end zone. On fourth down, with just seconds left on the clock, the crowd noise reached a din of thunderous proportions.
Rather than run a play, Zingler rushed up to the line of scrimmage, gathering together his linemen and spiked the ball.
It took the Panthers and a stunned crowd a few long heartbeats to understand what happened — a turnover on downs. Then the black-and-white Panthers rushed out onto the field in celebration.
Afterward, Zingler took it all on himself. He couldn’t hear the play call from the sidelines, he said.
“I thought it was third down, and I spiked it,” a shaken Zingler said. “I’ve got to know the downs. It was my fault. I lost the game.”
The defeat brings an end to any hopes of a perfect season at Ireton. The 7-1 Cardinals, rebounding from a dismal 4-6 2010 campaign, had torn mercilessly through their slate of opponents this year.
Coach Tony Verducci is taking solace in his team’s spirit. Despite digging themselves into a deep hole, they nearly clawed their way out.
“I think the benefit [of this game] is that we fought to the very end,” Verducci said. “We have to look at next week to start another streak. We want to start another one and get into the win column again.”
He is confident Zingler, and the rest of the squad, will bounce back after the loss. They have two away games left in the season, and take the field first against a 5-2 Potomac School squad before facing a 3-5 St. Mary’s Ryken team.
“We’re going to … keep fighting,” Zingler said. “We’re going to go hard this next week. I want us to come out with fire in our guts.”