CONYERS — Through 3 1/2 quarters, Heritage’s offense had ran 28 plays for 15 yards and were staring down the barrel of a three-touchdown deficit at home against Lakeside-Evans.
Lakeside quarterback Jaden Taylor was a 17-yard completion into the endzone away from giving his Panthers a commanding 21-0 lead with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, a situation Heritage’s defense hadn’t found itself in since Week 6 of the season.
“Everything was out-of-character for us,” Heritage head coach Corey Johnson said of his defense. “(Lakeside) was whipping us and that’s not typical of our defense. I challenged them to come out and play Heritage football and they stepped up to the challenge.”
A Zekaryah Rountree interception in the end zone for the Patriots thwarted Lakeside’s plans of increasing its lead, however and gave the Patriots’ offense the spark they desperately needed to light a fire.
With a home playoff on the line, Heritage’s final 23 offensive plays of the night resulted in 195 yards and three touchdowns - the final going into the hands of Jarvis Manuel with 1:13 Remaining in the fourth quarter - to hand the Patriots a stunning 20-15 victory over the Panthers.
The victory for the Patriots (5-5, 3-2 Region 3-AAAAAA) awards them a date with Coffee next Friday at home in the first round of the playoffs. With the loss, the Panthers will travel to No. 4 ranked Valdosta.
“When we started making that comeback, our fans were getting into it,” Johnson said. “We weren’t overly packed in here, but they got excited. Our guys heard the people in the stands and that was big. To be able to be here instead of taking a 5-hour trip and going into a hostile environment, that’s big for us.”
The Patriots’ comeback was not made possible without a strong defensive showing by the Patriots in the second half. After allowing 174 yards of offense to the Panthers in the first half, they were held to just 88 in the second half and did not allow a point.
A Korvee Elder forced fumble of Taylor on third-and-6 at the Heritage 40 with 2:55 remaining set up Heritage’s game-winner, a 5-play, 57-yard drive that ended with Derrick Thomas throwing a fade route to Manuel on third-and-goal.
After behind held to minus three yards on 2 of 12 passing to start the game, Thomas ended his night completing 6 of 7 for 148 yards and threw three touchdowns - a performance he easily called his best of the season.
“It’s crazy, man,” Thomas said. “I knew I could do it the whole game. My teammates lifted me up. That’s all I can say.”
On defense, Johnson credited Rountree’s interception with being the swing of momentum his Patriots needed to get back into the game.
“This year, our defense had been, for the most part, bend but don’t break,” Johnson said. “(Rountree’s interception) was one of those things that catapulted back into the mindset that we were ready to play football now. From that point there, we took off.”
Following’s Rountree’s interception, the Patriots converted only their third first down of the game on third-and-11 thanks to a defensive pass interference call against the Panthers. All three of the Patriots’ first downs at that point were the result of pass interference calls.
The Patriots marched the final 75 yards on 10 plays and scored on a 12-yard pass from Thomas to Caleb Clements to cut the lead to 15-7 with 10:33 remaining in the fourth quarter.
A Juleion Simmons 36-yard punt return following a Heritage defensive stop gave Thomas and the Patriots their best starting field position of the night from the lakeside 49 three minutes later.
After converting a gutsy fourth-and-1, Thomas delivered a perfectly-thrown pass down the right seem into the awaiting hands of running back Jan’i Belcher, who raced into the end zone for a 36-yard score.
Trailing 15-13, the Patriots’ ensuing 2-point conversion attempt failed to keep the Panthers in front with 5:29 remaining in the game.
Looking to get the ball back with a quick stop, the Panthers converted a long third-and-14 on a roll-out pass from Taylor to Andrew May, giving them a fresh set of downs inside Heritage territory.
Facing a third-and-6, Taylor dropped back to pass and was stripped by Elder, allowing the Patriots to keep all three timeouts with 2:55 remaining.
On the Patriots’ second play from scrimmage, Thomas threw deep to Clements down the left sideline, who cut inside and caught the pass before being brought down at the 6-yard line.
After burning more than one minute off of the clock, Thomas connected with Manuel in the left corner of the end zone to give the hosts their first lead of the game 20-15.
“Usually when we get to the goal line, coach Johnson likes to throw fades,” Manuel said. “Before that, I set their defensive back up. I acted like I was running a slant on one of our run plays. So when (Thomas) threw it up, I went and got it.
“I haven’t had too much success catching them. That’s probably my first one of the season. It felt too good.”
Needing to drive 74 yards in 1:07 to win, Taylor was sacked on back-to-back plays - once by Elder and once by Kobe Friend - to help set up an eventual stop on fourth down with 19 seconds remaining.
“When we got into the locker room, we focused up and got our heads back into it,” Friend said. “We just came out and played Heritage football. It feels really good because I know this is a big-time win for us. Now we have a home playoff game.”
Lakeside managed to grab an early 6-0 lead on the Patriots on fourth-and-8. A busted coverage in the secondary allowed Taylor to find a wide-open May in the right corner of the end zone with 6:16 left in the first.
A second busted coverage two drives later led to Lakeside’s second touchdown of the first half. Christopher Turner managed to sneak past the Heritage secondary for a 40-yard catch-and-run, setting up a 4-yard TD run from Taylor.
The score gave Lakeside a 12-0 lead with 11:03 in the second. With the Patriots continuing to struggle on offense, the Panthers tacked on a 33-yard field goal with 35 seconds remaining before halftime to grab a commanding lead at the break.
“In the first half, we kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Heritage head coach Corey Johnson said. “Everything we did was counterproductive. We came out and eliminated those types of mistakes and we played ball (in the second half).”
HERITAGE 20, LAKESIDE 15
Lakeside 6 9 0 0 — 15
Heritage 0 0 0 20 — 20
Lakeside: Andrew May 28 pass from Jaden Tayor (failed extra point), 6:16
Lakeside: Tayor 4 run (2-point conversion failed), 11:03
Lakeside: 33 Field goal, :35
Heritage: Caleb Clements 12 pass from Derrick Thomas (Acha Mbanwei kick), 10:33
Heritage: Jan’i Belcher 36 pass from Thomas (2-point conversion failed), 5:29
Heritage: Jarvis Manuel 6 pass from Thomas (Mbanwei kick), 1:13