All it took was 13 seconds for everything to come apart for the St. Thomas More Knights at O'Hagan Field Saturday afternoon.
The number 4-ranked Knights were nursing a hard-fought 7-3 lead over the number-3-ranked Vancouver College Fighting Irish with 13.2 seconds left in the third quarter when Van College's star wideout, Rashaun Simonise, returned a punt 78 yards to give the Fighting Irish the lead.
With time still left in the third quarter, Fighting Irish kicker Damiano Mauro then hit a high and short kickoff to the right side that teammate Justin Angeles recovered at the STM 32-yard line.
Four plays later, including a key third-down conversion on a Mitchell Corea reception, Vancouver College's star running back, Liam Mahara, rumbled for 22 yards for the insurance touchdown and salted away the Fighting Irish's 36th victory over the Knights in 48 matchups.
Knights head coach Bernie Kully took the blame for putting in an inexperienced special teams unit on Mauro's kick.
"We had a couple guys playing on that unit that we wanted to give some experience to," said Kully. "It didn't work out for us, but what really cost us was our inefficient red zone offence. Guys have to run what's called and they'll learn from a game like this."
Kully is referring to a series of fourth-quarter drives where the Knights drove deep into Fighting Irish territory, but came up empty.
On one fourth down gamble, quarterback Chase Malcolm was able to complete a pass to wideout Malcolm Lee, only to have Lee get tackled on the one-yard-line.
The Irish took over the ball, but a key tackle by Jalen Jana forced the Irish to punt. The Knights drove the ball down into Irish territory on the strength of a Giovanni Trasolini 29-yard reception where he carried defenders for the last 10 yards, but Malcolm threw the last of his four interceptions on the day, this time to Adrian Yu.
The Knights will also lament a key second quarter stretch where they looked to take control after seizing the lead on a Mahara fumble that Sebastian Adugalski converted into a 10-yard touchdown run.
The Knights caused another fumble, this time by Manvir Khun-Khun, and had just under two minutes before the half to get another score. Lee caught a nine-yard reception, but Malcolm couldn't convert, as he was picked off by Simonise with 18 seconds left in the half.
Vancouver College head coach Todd Bernett was happy with the hard-fought win.
"Nothing ever comes easy against STM," said Bernett. "If we ever let up against them, they'll make you pay. They're too good a team for us to have made the mistakes we made in the first half. Our defence kept us in the game after the turnovers and then we were able to turn the game around."
Bernett said the turning point for him was Mauro's designed kick.
"We worked on that in practice," said Bernett. "All credit to Damiano Mauro for executing."
As for his star wideout, Bernett said Simonise benefited from good blocking.
"He's got the speed to get into spaces if we're blocking it up right," said Bernett.
Bernett said Saturday afternoon's match had the added pressure of a crowd in excess of 2,000, ceremonies to honour former alumni Cal Murphy and Frank Smith and the ceremonies introducing members of the undefeated 1961 Irish squad and the 1994 provincial championship squad.
"Man, the pressure, it feels like we have an obligation to win at Homecoming," said Bernett. "It can be a distraction, but it's a good distraction."
As for Kully, things could have been much different if two of his best defenders, Elliot Nelson and Noah Usherwood, weren't injured for the pivotal match.
"Absolutely, I think they would have made a difference," said Kully, "but that's why we wanted other guys to step up."
For Bernett, seeing Nelson in civilian clothes for the opening coin toss was a relief for his team, but disappointing as a football fan.
"I looked him in his eyes (during the handshakes) and I could see how hungry he is to come back," said Bernett.
Next up for the Knights is another familiar rival, as they play Notre Dame at Burnaby Lake West on Friday night at 7 p.m.