When A.J. Long is taking snaps from the shotgun, Friendship Christian is in scoring position whether the Commanders are in enemy territory or backed up to their locker room some 180 yards from Pirtle Field’s south end zone.
Wearing a Captain America shirt under his No. 3 jersey, Long led his Avengers… er, Commanders to a wild 52-49 score-a-thon victory over visiting Donelson Christian on Friday night at Pirtle Field.
Long ran for 227 yards and five touchdowns on 24 carries, but may have saved his best for the clutch last, hitting Michael Hawks on a jump ball in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 17-yard line with two seconds left to lift Friendship to victory.
Earlier in the drive, Long hit Hawks on a fourth down completion to the 3. But DCA coach Dennis Goodwin accepted a third-down block-in-the back penalty on Friendship, which backed the Commanders to the 17 but gave them an extra down.
Long took advantage to lift the Commanders to 6-2 for the season and 3-1 in the East-Middle District 1-A, likely securing a first-round home playoff game for Friendship.
“I just had more focus going in on that,” Hawks said of the catches. “Any one of us could have done that. He threw the ball and it was that adrenaline, that push ‘I’m going to catch this ball, I’m going to bring this in, I’m going to get this done’.
“When [Long] is in the game, it’s completely different. We have a completely different type of atmosphere. He makes plays. He makes it happen. Everything revolves around him pushing us. He gets us set up and we make plays for him when he needs us to.”
Long, who completed 8 of 22 passes for 137 yards, scored on runs of 29, 3, 2, 8 and 95 yards. On the 95-yarder, he took the snap in the end zone and weaved his way around the defense before pulling away toward the south end zone to cap a Commander comeback from 11 points down [twice] and putting them back in front 45-42.
“This is a game I’ve been waiting for all year,” Long said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to win, whether it’s carrying the ball 50 times, 60 times, whatever.
“I’m comfortable with [Hawks] doing that, as well as Stevo [Steven Hollis] and AT [Austin Taylor] because he proves, just like in baseball, when he’s needed, he comes through in the clutch.”
Friendship led most of the first half with Blake Grosch hitting a 23-yard field goal in the closing seconds to send the Commanders into the locker room up 24-21.
But the first minute of the second half was a disaster for Friendship as DCA’s Nathaniel Stewart scored on runs of 69 and 74 yards on the Wildcats’ first two offensive snaps, sandwiched around the second of Long’s two interceptions, to catapult the visitors in front 35-24.
But Long came back with two third-period scores, including an 8-yarder over the pylon with time expired in the quarter to bring Friendship within 42-38.
“We’re resilient and we’re hard-headed,” Long said. “We’re not going to quit no matter what the score is. To see that we came back to win 52-49, I’m not surprised. It’s something we can do any given week against anybody.”
It’s something DCA and FCS have done to each other regularly over the years.
“They did it to us two years ago here and we did it back, I don’t remember what year, we threw a pass in the right corner with hardly no time left,” Commander coach John McNeal said. “It just seems to be this kind of game, back and forth.
“But I was just proud of our kids for not quitting and playing hard and overcoming.”
Friendship lost two early games when Long missed three contests. But the Commanders have run the table since the Syracuse commitment’s return.
“It does make a difference,” McNeal said. “We got two good running backs [Hollis and Taylor] and guys that can also make you balance it out. It’d be different if they could just focus on him. Hollis had a big run and AT had some big runs. With all of them back there together, it makes us a complete team.”
For all of Long’s heroics, it was Hollis who fired the first salvo with a 73-yard touchdown sweep on the game’s second snap. It appeared the play might come back as an official threw a flag. But the referee picked up the flag, much to the displeasure of Goodwin, who drew a sideline warning for coming too far onto the field to protest.
But Goodwin had a weapon of his own, senior quarterback Will Reddick, who completed 14 of 30 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. His first score covered 27 yards on a post route to James Douglas, who had eight receptions for 117 yards, to bring the Wildcats to within 7-6 after the extra point was missed.
Long came back with scoring runs of 29 and 3 yards for a 21-6 lead early in the second quarter. The second score was set up by a Hollis 60-yard sweep to the DCA 7.
But Reddick brought DCA back, finding Shiv Patel behind the defense for a 44-yard score.
Shannon Fayne’s 15-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion brought the visitors into a 21-21 tie 3:31 before halftime.
But Will Burruss’ 40-yard kick return got the Commanders started on their 44 and Long drove them to Grosch’s field goal.
After the back-to-back DCA touchdown runs in the first 51 seconds of the second half, Long came back with a 2-yard run.
DCA answered with a 5-yard score by Hop Mathews.
Hollis finished with 186 yards on 10 carries, including a 50-yard run on an option pitch which ended with him being thrown to the ground out of bounds for half-the-distance to the goal yards, setting up Long’s 8-yarder as the third quarter expired.
After Long’s length-of-the-field 95-yarder midway through the fourth quarter put Friendship back in front and electrified the east [home] side crowd, Reddick came back with a 30-yard touchdown to Alec Pratt to swing the lead back to DCA 49-45 with just under five minutes to play.
But Burruss returned the kickoff 29 yards to the Friendship 41 and Long went to work. Hawks drew DCA’s second pass interference penalty for one first down, Taylor swept for another before Long found Hawks for 24 yards on fourth and nine to the 3.
The Commanders compiled 576 total yards to DCA’s 514 as the Wildcats slipped to 6-2, 2-2.
Both teams have one district game remaining on Nov. 1 – DCA at home against Mt. Juliet Christian and Friendship at Ezell-Harding. But FCS now owns the tiebreaker with the Wildcats
In the meantime, the Commanders will close their regular-season home schedule next Friday when Fayetteville visits Pirtle Field for a 7 p.m. kickoff.