STERLING – Nolan McGinn took some monster bites while enjoying his first taste of varsity playoff football.
The two times the Newman sophomore was targeted Saturday at Roscoe Eades Stadium, he caught passes on down-and-distance. Both led to scores, and the second-seeded Comets staved off the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers for a 21-6 Class 3A first-round victory.
On the opening drive of the game, the 6-3, 180-pound end steamrolled defensive back Nate Andreas before hauling in an A.J. Sharp pass along the right sideline on a third-and-13 play from midfield to pick up 26.
“I didn’t even realize I ran into him,” McGinn said. “I just went out on my pass route, and then I thought he fell. I turned around, and there was the ball.”
Nine plays later, Nick Rude notched the first of his two 1-yard touchdown plunges, capping a 15-play, 7-minute, 9-second drive. The senior back led all rushers with 79 yards on 20 carries.
Three three-and-out drives later, Newman set up shop at the E-P 24. When a holding call stuck the Comets (10-0) in a fourth-and-14 bind at the 28, Sharp looked back to the upstart underclassman. McGinn ran a flag route on the left side and brought in a 23-yard pass with his fingertips.
“They were both huge catches,” Papoccia said. “We knew Nolan’s got great speed and he’s got great hands. We knew they’d have some smaller kids in the backfield and we were trying to use that to our advantage. For once, the coach was right.”
“It was just nuts,” McGinn said. “I’m lost for words. It didn’t even feel real.”
Rude scored again two plays later. On the ensuing drive, Newman stuffed senior Zach Inskeep, who led E-P (5-5) with 73 yards on 16 carries, on a fourth-and-1 carry at the E-P 39.
But the Comets didn’t take advantage. They came away with just the two scores, despite their first five drives’ average starting point being the E-P 42, and led 14-0 at the half.
“I was very disappointed,” Papoccia said. “We had the nice stop and we had another series we were close. I think we should’ve scored on at least one more out of those two.”
After only achieving one first down in the first half, E-P had five on the first two drives of the second half, the second ending in the end zone after a 40-yard rumble by Inskeep. He burst through the line and then outran defensive back Trevor Bolin to the left pylon.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some kid chasing me,” Inskeep said. “I was like, ‘Should I dive for the end zone, or should I just keep running?’ I trusted my legs, and it felt great to finally get something on the board. Them putting a goose egg on the board in the first half hurt.”
“You can’t hold him down the whole game,” Papoccia said. “He busted the one, but I thought we did a great job on him the rest of the game.”
The Comets answered with a 13-play, 5:56 drive, finished off by a 1-yard run by fullback Brian Bahrs. The senior racked up 70 yards on 16 carries, complemented by Jake Snow’s 64 on 12.
The Comets outgained the Panthers 229-125 in rushing, but both teams averaged a shade more than 4 yards per carry (4.2 and 4.3, respectively).
The difference was Newman going 8-for-14 on third down and 2-for-3 on fourth, allowing them to hold the ball 31:18 to E-P’s 16:42.
Star of the game: Nick Rude, 20 carries, 79 yards, 2 TDs
Key performers: Zach Inskeep, Erie-Prophetstown, 16 carries, 73 yards, TD; Brian Bahrs, Newman, 16 carries, 70 yards, TD; Nolan McGinn, 2 receptions, 49 yards