HERSHEY, Pa. – Remember that old saying, "Better late than never?" Surely you've heard it at least a time or two.
For much of Saturday's Big-33 Football Classic, played on a hot, humid day at Hersheypark Stadium, it felt like both the Ohio and Pennsylvania teams were stuck in neutral. But when the fourth quarter rolled around, the fireworks began exploding for both teams.
And some Pitt recruits provided some of the game's defining moments in Ohio's narrow 18-15 victory in the 53rd edition of one of the nation's most prestigious all-star football classics.
For starters, there was Drew Carswell's (Sto-Rox) momentum-changing 65-yard touchdown reception from fellow Pitt recruit Anthony Gonzalez (Bethlehem Liberty) with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter. That huge catch and run was Carswell's only reception of the evening. But boy, was it a big one, as it gave Pennsylvania a 15-10 lead.
"For sure," Carswell said of the momentum shift to PA's side after that touchdown. "That was a big change in momentum. That woke everybody up. Everybody was ready."
"I thought we'd won the game (then)," Gonzalez said.
Then there was Ohio's game-winning drive, led by fellow Pitt commit Mark Myers. Myers had to drive the Buckeye State stars 75 yards in 1:27 with only one timeout. Myers didn't need that much time, or, for that matter, the timeout.
On Ohio's first play from scrimmage, Myers coolly connected with running back Prince-Tyson Gulley (Akron Garfield) for a 53-yard pass and run to the Pennsylvania 22 yard line. After an offside penalty against PA gave Ohio a 1st and 5, Myers found Christian Bryant (Cleveland Glenville) from 17 yards out to give Ohio a 16-15 lead with 1:04 remaining in regulation. Myers put the finishing touches on the Buckeye State's scoring, converting the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt on a QB keeper.
"Players from both sides stepped up," Myers said postgame. "The second half was very exciting."
But for all of the big plays late in the game, the first three quarters were largely devoid of anything notable offensively, unless you are a fan of low-scoring, slugfest types of defensive scrums of all-star games.
Pennsylvania held a 2-0 halftime lead. Neither team could really get much going offensively. The ground games for both Pennsylvania and Ohio tallied a combined 22 carries for 3 yards in the first half, a combined average of just over a tenth of a yard per carry. (To be technical, the decimal number works out to .13636. It doesn't take a former communications major to tell you that's a low number.)
Running back Derrick Burns (Wilmington Area), a career 3,000-yard rusher coming off of a near-1,100-yard senior season with the Greyhounds, vouched for how tough it was to gain yardage on the ground.
"The defensive line for Ohio was really good," Burns said. He finished the game with 5 carries for 5 yards. "They (Ohio) weren't going to let the running backs beat them tonight. The quarterbacks had to make plays."
Those plays were few and far between. An early Ohio drive in the first quarter into the Keystone State red zone was thwarted when Myers (8-of-16, 127 yards, TD, 2 INT) had his pass intercepted by Colby Way (State College Area).
"The first half was tough, timing wise," Myers said. "We only got a week to practice as a team. Once we got the timing down in the second half, things got going."
Gonzalez only made two notable first half plays – both came in the first quarter. He hit TE Tyler Beck on a 20-yard pass and scrambled for a 21-yard run. Gonzalez only completed that single pass in the first half and was intercepted twice.
"Things weren't panning out in the first half," Gonzalez said. "There were some miscommunications. We cleaned those things up in the second half."
Receivers Carswell and Salath Williams (Bishop McDevitt) were silent in the first half. Williams did have a chance at a long reception for at least a first down (and possibly more), but the Tyler Smith spiral fell through his waiting hands and harmlessly hit the turf.
"We'd had a wonderful week of practice," Carswell said. "And in the pregame warmups, we looked good. But we weren't on the same page in the first half."
"We wish we had a lot of things back," Williams said about PA's missed opportunities throughout the game. "But hey – you win some and lose some."
Williams did atone for the silent first half and finished with 3 receptions for 57 yards to lead Pennsylvania's receiving corps.
Carswell finished with the 65-yard touchdown reception. Burns also had a couple of passes thrown his way, but did not register a reception. A pass thrown to Burns that looked like it would be caught for a short gain, but #27 was on the receiving end of a vicious hit from an Ohio defender, and the ball, jarred from Burns' hands, fell innocently to the Hershey field turf.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, never could quite find a rhythm passing or find many running lanes in the Ohio defense after the long first quarter run. The dual-threat quarterback connected on just 6-of-19 passes for 146 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. He added 8 keepers for 19 yards.
"It's tough losing, especially the final game," Gonzalez said. "But I enjoyed the experience. It's an honor. Not everybody gets selected to play in this game."