CHATHAM, NJ - Chatham head coach Jason Izsa summed up the Cougars' Homecoming football game against Pope John in 13 words.
"It was a first half to remember and a second half to forget," Izsa said.
Chatham took a seven-point lead into the break before Pope John came back over the final two quarters to win the game, 34-17, snapping the Cougars' four-game winning streak on Saturday at Cougar Field.
A victory by Chatham (5-2, 4-2 NJAC) would have clinched a Group 3 state playoff berth and pulled the Cougars even with Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference- American Division leader Pope John (6-2, 6-0 NJAC).
The Cougars received a break before the game even started. Pope John quarterback Sonny Abramson, who has accepted a scholarship offer to play at the University of Virginia, was sidelined with an injury.
"There was rumors (about his injury), but we still prepared for him to be in there," Izsa said.
The turning point came when Lions running back Berrell Neal bounced off a tackle, spun around and sprinted 51 yards for a touchdown with 1:51 left in the third quarter for a 19-17 lead. Chatham's Matt Nestler blocked the extra point.
The 5-9, 210-pound Neal finished with 175 yards on 26 carries and two TDs. Neal's backfield mate, Sekayi Rudolph, ended with 105 yards on 14 carries, rushing for two scores in the fourth quarter.
"I told our guys all week that we had to make tackles," Izsa said. "We need to do a better job of tackling. You give the kid (Neal) one inch and he's gone. He's a very, very good running back. He's the best running back we've seen so far. It's tough to imitate in practice, especially with his size and speed."
Mateo Zapata's 22-yard field goal staked Pope John to a 3-0 lead in the first quarter. Chatham took the lead with a 70-yard drive, keyed by Timmy Adams' 8-yard gain on fourth and four. Two plays later, Nestler powered his way into the end zone on a 23-yard run with 9.8 seconds left in the first period. Adams added the placement for a 7-3 lead.
Pope John regained the lead, 10-7, before Justin Hayes returned the ensuing kickoff 36 yards to the Chatham 46. Hayes then bolted 17 yards on the first play and was slowed down by a facemask penalty that tacked on 15 more yards.
Three snaps later, Hayes took a pitch from Adams, turned the corner and dove into the end zone. His 20-yard TD run and Adams' PAT handed the Cougars to a 14-10 lead with 7:18 left in he second.
Hayes then turned to the defensive side at cornerback and made a tackle on Rudolph for a 4-yard loss. Linebacker Nestler followed with a sack of quarterback Ty Hranicka for a 6-yard loss. That led to a Pope John punt and a Chatham drive to the Lions 11 that was keyed by passes from Alex Sands to Brian Brady (12 yards) and Robbie Moskowitz (10 yards).
With 10 seconds left in the half, Chatham called the "Quarterback Attack" play that worked against Morris Hills two weeks ago. The snap went to Hayes, who handed off to Brady for the throw to quarterback Sands. Brady's throw was a little too strong and it sailed past Sands.
Adams then kicked a 28-yard field goal, pushing the Chatham lead to 17-10 on the final play of the first half.
"I think we kind of shook them a little bit, especially going up 17-10," Izsa said. "I don't know if we poked a sleeping bear or anything like that, but they stuck with what they did and kept grounding it out. That run (by Neal) was a back breaker right there. Both teams we're exhausted at the end.
"We did what we had to do, in the second half. I think we still did a great job offensively. You have to figure this is the No. 1 team in the conference and we're beating them at the half. I don't think they've been in a (NJAC) battle all year."
Chatham had its chances to add to its lead, but Pope John held on and then put away the game with its two scores in the fourth quarter.
"Our game plan didn't change," Nestler said. "They obviously went into the locker room and made some adjustments. The scoreboard doesn't show how hard we fought today; 34-17 doesn't show that we were in the game for three and a half quarters. We proved to a lot of people in the state that we're here to stay."
Chatham was flagged for a personal foul on the first play from scrimmage in the game and the Cougar coaching staff wasn't happy when offensive coordinator Steve Trivino was flagged for being out of the coach's box.
"Whatever they were doing, whether it was the other team or the referees, we have to persevere through that," Izsa said. "Teams are going to taunt and bait you and try to get inside your heads. There were flags thrown on both teams. Would we have liked a few more calls to go our way?, absolutely. Again, that doesn't make up for a 17-point difference."
Chatham travels to meet Parsippany Hills (4-3), 7 p.m. Friday on Oct. 30, when it can nail down its first state playoff berth since 2011.
"If we win next week, we're definitely in," Izsa said. "We control our own destiny."
Chatham's first play from scrimmage in the game was this Alex Sands pass to Robbie Moskowitz for a 20-yard gain
The trick play that resulted in a TD vs. Morris Hills just missed working again when Justin Hayes took the snap, handed off to Brian Brady, who threw to quarterback Alex Sands. Sands was open, but Brady's throw was a little too strong to catch with 10 seconds left in the first half.
Timmy Adams connects on a 28-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to give Chatham a 17-10 lead at the break