By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
FALLS CHURCH -- It seemed, if only for a few moments, the dark cloud hanging over Stonewall Jackson's season had lifted.
Facing a third down just inside George Mason territory, the Generals pitched the ball to running back Anthony Peacher. The tailback bounced out toward the left sideline, quickly finding himself wrapped up a few yards shy of the first down. Suddenly, a white jersey burst through the cluster and darted toward the end zone.
It was Peacher, ball in hand, racing for a Stonewall touchdown, putting the Generals ahead midway through the fourth quarter. But just as fast as the skies had cleared for the Generals, another set of clouds rolled in.
On the Mustangs' ensuing drive, an outpouring of penalties and mental errors dampened the Generals' defensive stand. It became so bad that Stonewall coach Dick Krol stood at midfield berating the referees, who seemed to be tossing yellow flags on a whim against the Generals.
It was clear Stonewall Jackson was unraveling. Four penalties on the drive, including two unsportsmanlike conduct calls, backed the Generals up to their 1 before Bryce Cooper took the ball in for a 1-yard score, lifting the Mustangs to a 16-12 win Friday night.
"[What's] going through my mind is why the hell it took till the fourth quarter. And secondly, I've seen some home cooking in my life, but this had to be the worst case of it in my life," Krol said. "These guys never called a hold all night until we got called going down the field to possibly score. They were a bogus crew and, again, nothing taken away from Mason. They worked hard and played hard, but when you've got seven extra guys helping you, it makes it rough."
Despite the suspect officiating, early on the Generals had bigger issues to worry about, particularly in the trenches. Offensively, running backs Jared Getz and Cole Shaffer struggled to move the chains, as George Mason's defensive line continuously won the battle up front, forcing Getz and Shaffer to dance around the backfield for open holes. Meanwhile, quarterback John-Michael Pirtle discovered mixed results through the air and on the ground, as the Generals managed just two first downs in the first half.
Defensively, the Generals had trouble maintaining the Mustangs' stable of running backs, led by senior Patrick Rhodes. Rhodes found success using a sweep to the right side, tallying 93 rushing yards on the night. The Mustangs' success on the ground led to the game's only first-half score as Stephen Lubnow rushed for a 10-yard score to put George Mason ahead at the half.
In the third quarter, both defenses held strong, and neither team was able to find the end zone on offense. But with six-and-a-half minutes left in the quarter, a Stonewall Jackson snap went errant, landing in the end zone, where the Generals were forced to fall on the ball and give the Mustangs a safety, leaving Stonewall searching for intensity.
"Why wasn't it there?," Krol said. "That's a good question. We waited too long to get intense. We got pushed around on both sides of the ball."
Wherever the intensity was for the Generals through the first three quarters, the spark appeared in the final 12 minutes in the form of Peacher.
Thanks to a 41-yard run to start the fourth quarter, the Generals' offense was suddenly on the move, as runs by Peacher, Getz and Pirtle led to Stonewall's first score, a 19-yard run by Getz, to cut the lead to 9-6. Following a fumble recovery by the Generals on the next series, Peacher pulled off his 37-yard touchdown to put Stonewall ahead with eight minutes to play.
"Peacher was the hero tonight," Pirtle said. "He did a phenomenal job for a sophomore coming in. From the first day of camp until now, he's shown glimpses and now every time he touches the ball, it's golden."
The emotional lift from Peacher couldn't erase what happened next. As George Mason traveled down the field, Krol became enraged about a call against the Generals, eventually marching out to the field for words with the head referee. After a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, the Generals let their emotions get the best of them, committing another 15-yard infraction to help the Mustangs score and take the lead.
With one final chance for the comeback, Stonewall again fell victim to penalties, as two false starts and a holding call ended the drive and sealed the win for George Mason.
"It wasn't Stonewall Jackson football," Krol said. "I have one player who has his job on Monday, and that's Peacher. We just need to show more intensity a lot sooner in the game."