For the second week in a row, the Pinecrest Academy defense played an outstanding second half, stonewalling the opponent’s offense and pulling away in the fourth quarter for a win.
The difference Friday? The Paladins played even better defensively in the first half against visiting Mt. Vernon Presbyterian, setting the stage for the team’s first shutout of the season with a 30-0 trouncing of the Mustangs in the region opener. Pinecrest completely throttled the Mustang rushing attack, jumped on top early and rode the defense and special teams until the offense woke up in the fourth quarter to put the game away in front of a rowdy homecoming crowd.
“Hopefully we’re peaking at the right time,” said head coach Charles Wiggins of the defense, which allowed 68 total yards and didn’t take a snap on their side of the field until the closing seconds. “I think we’ve come up with a scheme that we can work with.”
Quarterback Zach Wilson continued his maturation process, rushing for a total of 117 yards on 17 carries and a pair of first-half touchdowns. He also threw for two scores, both in the fourth quarter.
Wiggins deemed Wilson’s first carry the most important, as the junior faked a handoff, bounced off right tackle and weaved his way through the secondary for a 65-yard touchdown run on the game’s opening drive.
“I think that was the key play,” Wiggins said. “Our boys play a lot better when we’re up. They show more emotion.”
Pinecrest’s own offensive struggles kept the Mustangs in the game, but the defense’s ability to get the ball back with a short field paid off just before the half. With less than two minutes to go, the Paladins got the ball at the Mt. Vernon 41.
Aided by a pass-interference penalty and Joe Neiner’s 15-yard catch, Pinecrest was at the one-yard-line with 27 seconds left and no timeouts.
Michael Cassandra was stuffed on a run, and with seconds ticking off and the sideline screaming to kill the clock, the offense hurriedly lined up. But instead of spiking the ball, Wilson audibled to a quarterback sneak — which Wiggins said the quarterback had the authority to do — and wormed the ball over with just two seconds to go.
From there, the defense kept wearing the Mustangs down. Late in the third, Pinecrest had yet another short field, but Mt. Vernon picked Wilson off at their own 4-yard-line and looked to swing the momentum back.
But they never got away from the shadow of their own goal posts. Two running plays were stopped for no gain, then Nico Quintana burst through the line and dragged down the Mustang quarterback in the end zone for a safety — one of his two sacks — and a 16-0 lead on the last play of the quarter.
The Pinecrest offense produced two workmanlike drives against a fatigued defense in the fourth, culminating in a nine-yard touchdown grab by Neiner and a 40-yarder to Michael DePalma. Pinecrest had the ball deep in Mustang territory late in the quarter as well after a Kevin Metz interception, but took a knee on fourth down.
“We think we have the best conditioning program around,” Wiggins said of the fourth-quarter dominance that turned a two-possession game into a rout. “We do a lot during the summer so that we’re the best team in the fourth quarter.”
The Paladins are now sporting a three-game winning streak and a 1-0 mark in GISA 1-IAAA play (4-2-1 overall). They travel to Macon to take on Central Fellowship next week.