UPDATED WITH PHOTOS
SOMERVILLE — Akin Akinwunmi had yet to attempt a varsity football field goal, but as time started to tick down in the fourth quarter of his team’s dogfight against Immaculata Friday night, he knew his chance might be coming soon.
Akinwunmi’s number was indeed called, and with his team down a point and under a minute left, the junior put an entire school on his back.
With Scotch Plains-Fanwood (2-2) trailing, 21-20, on 4th-and-Goal at the Immaculata six with 25 seconds left, Akinwunmi booted a perfect kick through the uprights for the game-winning 23-yard field goal to give the Raiders a stressful but exhilarating 23-21 win over the Spartans (1-3) Friday night. It was the Raiders’ first win over the Somerville parochial school in at least over 15 years.
“As soon as it reached the five-minute mark, I knew we would probably kick it,” Akinwunmi told TAPinto.net. “I started stretching out, running, and then we kicked it.”
“I was so happy,” he added. “I just thank this team because they helped me out.”
Fellow classmate Shawn Martin rushed for 175 yards on 30 carries including a 50-yard first half touchdown, while Hayden Widder threw a touchdown pass to Justin Clark and rushed for another to lead the Raiders’ offense. All three Raider touchdowns came in the first half on the team’s first three drives, as they had amassed a 20-0 lead 20 minutes into the game — only to see it wash away in the second half.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood was on the brink of disaster, having coughed up that lead by the fourth quarter after Immaculata scored three straight touchdowns, the third of which came on Tommy McGuire’s seven-yard plunge to make give the Spartans their first lead, 21-20, with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
After the Raiders failed to convert on a fourth down on their ensuing drive, all hope appeared lost. But it was quickly regained when the Raiders recovered a fumble on Immaculata’s very next play, giving them the ball at the Spartan 33 with 2:14 remaining. The Raiders got as far as the Immaculata 6 before electing to kick, and Akinwunmi converted it flawlessly.
“We could be 3-1, 1-3, or 0-4, but we’re 2-2,” said Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Austin Holman. “Sometimes the football gods play games with your head. It worked out for us this time. Those kids played hard throughout the game. That’s one thing — and everyone tells me, especially my dad, who’s my biggest critic — your team kept fighting every time, even in that Cranford game. That’s what you ask from them.”
It was that fight from Scotch Plains-Fanwood that lifted the Raiders on top in a game script that they have seen and lost in countless times over the years — and even early this year.
After jumping ahead 20-0, one costly mistake snowballed on itself and soon Immaculata was right back in it. On Immaculata’s next drive after Martin’s 50-yard TD — which made it 20-0 — a seemingly small Raider personal foul after forcing a would-be fourth down gave Immaculata fresh life and a new set of downs. One play later, a Pelton Esannason pass was tipped in the air and recovered by Brandon Primus for a 55-yard TD to put the Spartans on the board entering the half.
That was all the fuel Immaculata needed to make a second half surge.
On Immaculata’s first drive after the nearly hour-long halftime, Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s defense faltered and McGuire scored on a three-yard TD to cap off the eight-play, 57-yard series to make it 20-14. The Raiders then went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, and upon receiving the punt, Immaculata put together another 57-yard scoring drive, again resulting in a McGuire score — this time on a seven-yard rush — to put Spartans ahead, 21-20, following the PAT from Zach Helleis.
“[Our defensive line] did a great job in the first half, but Immaculata realized they couldn’t run it up the middle with their spinner series and what not on us because of our penetration from up front,” Holman said. “They made a good adjustment, but we responded still.”
That had erased a lead that Scotch Plains-Fanwood built in quick and stunning fashion. But the Raiders didn't back down, and reacquired the momentum battle by recovering the fumble with 2:40 left on Immaculata's first play of what the Spartans had hoped would be their final drive.
Akinwumni would win it just over two minutes later.
"We just needed to finish, and technically, we didn’t finish in the third quarter, but towards the end of the fourth quarter, we started finishing and pushing back," Martin said. "We had a lot of confidence during this game, especially after watching film and learning all their plays and how they ran the ball. As soon as we put defense on the field, I knew we could push them back and loose yards."
The Raiders made a massive statement on the very first drive of the night, marching 65 yards downfield on nine plays in 3:31, eventually scoring on Widder’s two-yard keeper touchdown right up the gut to make it 7-0. Consecutive runs of 18 and 15 yards from Martin and Anthony Robinson, respectively, had put the Raiders in the red zone.
Then on the Raiders’ second drive of the night, it took just seven plays to score from 58 yards out. That drive yielded success when, on 3rd-and-8 from the Spartan 29, Widder rolled out right and found Clark at the front right pylon for the touchdown, extending the lead to 13-0.
As if things couldn’t get better for the Raiders, on their third drive of the evening, Martin gashed a hole out wide right on a counter, broke a tackle, and steamed 50 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown.
"As soon as I got the ball, I saw the middle clog up, and then I see a wide open gap on the outside," Martin said. "I took it and just had a burst of speed."
"It feels really good being up 20-0," he added. "We had it in the bag. I just knew from the start that we would win this game. If it was close, we still had this."
Of course, none of that success would've been possible without the Raiders' offensive line. Kenny Yeager, Mike Banic, Jack Manville, Alex Werkheiser, and Nick Johns played physically and dominated the trenches all night, allowing holes to run through and time in the pocket for Widder to pass.
"The line worked very hard this game," Widder said. "They used their size advantage over these kids, and they hit like beasts today. It was a big change from last week to this week on the line, and that’s why we won this game."