LIVERPOOL — In the first few minutes of play on Friday night, the Rome Free Academy football team appeared to be headed for a shootout for the second straight week, this time against Class AA-1 foe Liverpool.
Rome, which had outlasted arch rival Proctor High of Utica 24-21 last week in an emotional crossover game, tied the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter after both teams had little trouble moving the chains on offense.
Liverpool wouldn’t look back.
What started off as a shootout quickly turned into a track meet for the Warriors as they rolled to 35 straight points and wound up with a commanding 42-14 victory in what Liverpool coach Dave Mancuso called a "must-win" for his program. The loss also mathematically eliminated Rome from Section III playoff contention with two games to play.
Tailback Tyland Thompson ran for 77 yards and a touchdown, Jeff Edwards had 60 yards on the ground, and senior quarterback Za’Von Watkins ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more while the Warriors’ defense wrecked havoc against the Black Knights’ offensive line all night.
In what was a must-win game for Rome as well, the Black Knights were still left searching for their first league win of the season as they dropped to 0-4 and 1-4 overall with two games left on their Class AA-1 schedule. They play their Senior Night game next Friday night against two-time defending Class AA Section III champion Baldwinsville at 7 o’clock at the Stadium.
Under the rules in the Section III handbook, RFA was eliminated from playoff contention, with Liverpool, Nottingham High of Syracuse and Cicero-North Syracuse currently in fourth, fifth and sixth place in Class AA-1. Although it is still possible for RFA to move into a tie for fourth place if it wins its last two remaining league games, Rome would lose out on any tiebreakers because it has already lost to Liverpool, Nottingham and C-NS.
Christian Brothers Academy is in first place in the league at 4-0, followed by 3-1 Baldwinsville and 3-2 Central Square. Liverpool is 2-2, Nottingham is 2-3 and C-NS is 1-3.
RFA coach Ted Swavely was disappointed with his team’s performance, especially after last week’s win over Proctor.
"We went back to weeks one, two and three in making mistakes. It baffled me today. Same old, same old," said Swavely. "We just didn’t block up front. They didn’t show us anymore speed than Proctor did last week. They haven’t shown us anything that we haven’t seen already this year. We just didn’t come ready to play tonight, and that’s unfortunate because all week I’m telling them that the season is on the line for us, and that’s the toughest part," he added.
RFA senior workhorse Rich Stapleton ran for another 146 yards off 23 carries on the ground to go with a 10-yard TD rush that tied the game at 7-7. He also had six tackles and recovered a fumble for Rome as their starting linebacker. On the season, Stapleton has generated 779 yards on the ground off 133 carries, with seven TDs and another score receiving. On defense, he has accounted for 23 tackles on the season.
But he wasn’t thinking about individual accomplishments after Friday’s loss. "We made a lot of mistakes up front and that was our down fall. We had a few big runs, but we could have had more," said Stapleton. "Their defense threw a lot of different things at us, and we had to make the adjustments. We practiced it, and practiced it, but its a lot for linemen to take in and we didn’t make those adjustments. They were more physical than us, that’s where we came up short," he added.
Liverpool’s 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive lineman Pat Carroll-Marsh made five tackles, and 256-pound defensive linemen Alex Gibson made seven, while linebacker Dillon Springer had seven and defensive back Matt Isbell had a team-high eight tackles to lead the Warriors.
RFA starting quarterback senior Aaron Tennant faced constant blitzes all night from that defensive front and finished 5-of-11 passing for 38 yards and ran for 61 yards.
Vernon-Verona-Sherrill transfer and RFA starter for the first three weeks of the season, Angus Evans, came in during the fourth quarter and led the Black Knights on a last-minute drive, while junior running back Brett McKinney broke in for a 4-yard TD run with 4:43 left in the fourth quarter.
Senior wideout Zach Barrigar caught six passes for 75 yards, Julius Berry ran for 30 yards and McKinney finished with 15 yards.
"Their defense made it tough on us, but we just missed our blocks, and missed our plays. Everything was there for us, but we just didn’t perform. We didn’t come ready to play, plain and simple," said Barrigar.
"We had seen it all week in practice, but we didn’t come out there and execute, and we didn’t make tackles. We couldn’t contain the quarterback, and we have to learn form this," he added.
Watkins went 6-for-7 for 143 yards and two TDs through the air, and rushed for 113 yards and two scores on eight carries. He broke a 22-yard TD scamper to put the Warriors up, 7-0, on their first possession after hooking up with his favorite target Elijah Johnson, who finished with three catches for 89 yards and a TD, for a key 30-yard reception on a third and long play.
Rome then went 79 yards on 10 plays, capped by a Stapleton 10-yard TD run to knot the score at 7-all with 11:08 left before the half.
The Warriors responded with a drive that lasted 6:35 going 92 yards on 13 plays. Watkins turned what appeared to be a loss of ten into a gain of 20 yards while weaving his way through traffic to put the hosts inside their own 30. Five plays later, it was Watkins again that broke off for a 12 yard gain before Thompson leaped into the end zone for a 1-yard TD.
"We just didn’t tackle today. We stopped them in the backfield on a number of plays, and they just don’t finish with their legs to bring them down. If these kids don’t get in the weight room in the offseason, the same thing is going to happen next year. Every week it shows, and that’s the result," Swavely said.
Rome was held on three straight plays, before a failed fake punt attempt forced the Knights to turn the ball over on downs on the Warriors’ 30, and three plays later it was Watkins hooking up with Johnson again for a 9-yard TD reception, putting the hosts ahead 20-7 at the half.
Rome was 1-of-5 on fourth down conversions, after going 4-for-5 against Proctor last week.
Rome started their second half off like they had their past two weeks, with a bang.
Stapleton recovered a Johnson fumble on the Warriors’ first possession of the second half and it set RFA up on the 11. Rome then drove 40 yards on four straight plays before the Liverpool defense stopped Rome on four straight plays to turn the ball over on downs.
Watkins then hooked up with Johnson on a 52-yard TD strike the very next play to go up 28-7.
On the Black Knights’ next possession, Tennant busted off for an apparent 28-yard TD run, but fumbled before breaking the plain of the end zone and Liverpool safety Jamaree James picked up the ball in the end zone and brought it back 21 yards. Five plays later, it was Watkins scoring again, this time on a 25-yard TD run at the start of the fourth quarter.
"Za’Von is just a superb athlete. He executes, he really does, and he brings another dimension to the game," said Mancuso, whose team snapped their two-game losing streak to move to 2-2 in the league and 2-3 overall.
"It was a good game for us. I think we have a good team, but we haven’t been playing well. I think our kids played a little bit better tonight. They battled tonight. They knew it was on the line, and we knew after CBA last week that the playoffs started today," added Mancuso.
On defense, junior linebacker Rocky Capponi led the Black Knights with 12 tackles, senior Dylan Thomas had nine tackles, junior Manuel Zegrelli made seven tackles, McKinney made six, and Eric Sweeney, Alex Todd and John Allen all added four tackles apiece.
RFA will honor its 15 seniors in a ceremony prior to next Friday’s contest against Baldwinsville at Tom Hoke Field at the Stadium.
Baldwinsville fell to 3-2 overall with a 39-38 Class AA crossover loss to undefeated West Genesee last night.