When sophomore defensive tackle Taizse Johnson wrapped up Gonzaga’s RB Malcom Terry behind the line of scrimmage late in the 4th quarter, there was a collective mix of relief and celebration from the St John’s sideline, as they secured a 34-17 win Saturday at Buchanan Field.
The Eagles, who had put pressure on the Cadets defense for the majority of the second half, had been marching down the field with a string of first down completions when they were stuffed twice on St John’s 6 yard line, first on 3rd-and-1, then with Johnson’s tackle for loss.
Johnson credited his team for the late stand. “Not just me, I think the team, everybody, came together. We looked like we were facing adversity in the second half, but we all came together in the fourth and we won the game,” Johnson said.
After a march from the school’s Cadet Corps down North Capitol Street, St John’s hit the ground running in the first quarter, forcing two consecutive 3-and-outs from Gonzaga. Their offense scored 13 points off of five plays: a 3 play drive ending in a 37-yard Ron Cook ‘19 rushing touchdown, and a Quinten Johnson ‘19 touchdown reception. The first extra point was blocked, but Daniel Reyes ‘21 made the second attempt.
“I’m just trying to help my team out in any way I can, and today it was on offense,” Johnson, a two-way player who hasn’t scored since Sept 29th against Christian Brothers (MO), said after the game. “We needed this touchdown, and I got it for us.”
Gonzaga slowly worked their way down to St John’s 13-yard line, but a field goal wide to the left kept the score 13-0. Still in Cadet territory, QB Sol-Jay Maiava ‘20 threw a pass that was deflected and intercepted by Gonzaga’s Grant Parker towards the end of the 1st quarter. Another defensive stand, including a sack by DE Greg Hudgins III ‘20, held the Eagles to only a field goal.
After trading 3-and-outs, RB Colby McDonald ‘21 broke down the sideline and into Gonzaga territory; however, the drive looked to be stalling at the 10 yard line. But on 3rd down, Maiava faked a handoff, kept the ball, and scored a 4-yard rushing touchdown with less than 5 minutes left in the half. It was Maiava’s first rushing touchdown since the game winning score Sept 22nd against Marietta (GA).
But the Cadets weren’t done for the half. Their defense forced another 3-and-out, allowing Ron Cook to return the punt into Eagles territory before scoring with 1:22 left in the half to make the halftime score 27-3.
The Eagles came out strong in the second half and forced their own 3-and-out. Set up at the Cadets 38 yard line after a low punt, Gonzaga took 7 plays to get into the end zone for the first time in the game, off a 15-yard rush by Terry.
Maiava, struggling under continued pressure in the pocket, fumbled the ball inside St John’s 25-yard line. But a dropped pass in the endzone and a pass breakup by Quinten Johnson held Gonzaga to another field goal attempt. Eagles kicker Marco Kemp missed wide left again for another empty Gonzaga drive.
Gonzaga would threaten again on their next possession advancing the ball to the Cadet 1/2 yard line.
“First of all, I’m just thinking ‘I hope he doesn’t drag me into the end zone,’” Quinten Johnson said. Johnon would strip the ball out before it crossed the goal line, and a recovery by Taizse Johnson would keep the score at 27-10.
“I remember telling everyone, ‘we got this, stay together,’” Taizse Johnson said. “And our guys just made a play and we took the ball away. We decided we weren’t gonna lose the game.”
For St John’s, starting a drive at their own 8 yard line did not ease any of the pressure they had been facing earlier. Still without a 2nd half first down, the Cadets were held to another 3-and-out, and a tipped punt set up Gonzaga at the St John’s 30-yard line to end the 3rd quarter. They only needed 2 plays to get into the end zone, this time a Caleb Williams completion to John Marshall under double coverage to make it 27-17.
With momentum building for Gonzaga and the offense only now recording their 2nd half first down, Maiava made a play to ice the game for the Cadets. Scrambling out of the pocket and having his jersey tugged from behind by an Eagles defensive lineman, Maiava would find a wide open Cam Ross streaking down the sideline, completing the pass and running it in in for a 67 -yard touchdown.
“I was just hoping he saw me,” Ross said after the game with a laugh.
Gonzaga would threaten twice more, but would be stopped both times - a 4th down pass breakup on the Cadets 22, and Taizse Johnson’s 4th-and-1 tackle - leading to the Cadets' 34-17 win.
It was the 94th meeting between the Eagles (7-3, 1-3 WCAC) and the Cadets (9-0, 4-0 WCAC), one of the oldest Catholic high school rivalries in America. Gonzaga still holds a one game edge on the Modern Era record with 46 wins, but St John’s has a chance to tie that next week. The Cadets host Gonzaga in their WCAC Semifinal on Saturday, November 10th at 1pm. The winner will go to the WCAC Championship on November 17th, facing the winner of Good Counsel (6-3, 2-2 WCAC) at DeMatha (7-2, 3-1 WCAC).
Casamento was frustrated with his team’s late game performance. “We played the worst football we ever played in the second half, so it is easy to refocus for next week,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “You just can’t get up like that and then think you have it and stop playing. We have a lot to work on.”
Taizse Johnson told The Sabre: “We got to improve on some things, and being at home is going to be a really big factor. We’re just looking forward to playing at home this Saturday.”
Even with a limited ticket supply, Cadet fans still filled the stands, lining the standing room area behind the eastern end zone after all the seats were taken. Fans arrived as early as 12:30pm to buy tickets at the door.
Quinten Johnson has faith St John’s can put it together by Saturday. When asked what a win at Gonzaga did for the Cadets knowing they would play the same team next week, he said: “It just gives us the confidence we need to go out and do our best. We know we’re a better team than them when we play our best.”