At the conclusion of the play that essentially brought Suitland High School's hopes of an undefeated season to an end, Rams defenders Josh Burke and Brandon Brown stood facing a massive block of empty purple seats in the far end zone at M&T Bank Stadium.
There they both stared into the emptiness, arms hooked over a padded banner that said “Ravens,” and watched their season wither away, one win shy of a state championship. On the other sideline, Northwest's players and fans celebrated a shocking 77-yard passing touchdown — the longest play of the game — from Mark Pierce to Matt Watson that put the Jaguars ahead by 10 points with 4 minutes, 27 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
While the blown coverage on that play was costly, it was the accumulation of uncharacteristic mistakes throughout Friday night's contest that ultimately doomed Suitland.
On a rainy, windy and generally unpleasant night in Baltimore, Northwest's 33-16 victory ended Suitland's bid for its third state championship. Instead, Ed Shields' team settled for being runners up for the third time in school history.
“We had some opportunities, but we were not about to take advantage of those opportunities for some reason,” Shields said. “We had some miscues and I thought that maybe we could still get by them. But in a state championship game, you've got to catch every ball, you've got to throw every ball, you've got to make every run and do every coverage.
“We messed up in those areas and today was one of the first days all year we weren't able to overcome those mistakes.”
Shivering and sneezing during his postgame interview, senior quarterback Wesley Wolfolk shouldered the blame for his team's poor performance. In reality, while Wolfolk certainly could have played better than his stats indicate, the result was far from his fault alone. Suitland (13-1) committed 17 penalties, allowed a season-high 33 points, suffered costly injuries and missed the mark on a number of would-be big plays.
“You saw our fight and our character in trying to come back, and even with the 17 penalties it looked like we might come back, but we just couldn't get it done,” Shields said.
On four occasions in the first half, Wolfolk had a receiver open deep downfield, but failed to connect. On the first, he overthrew Nick Nelson along the far sideline. On the second, Tevin Singleton dropped an underthrown ball. The third was intercepted by Northwest's Rodney Snider (intended for Singleton) and Snider batted the fourth away from Singleton as well.
Injuries were an issue, too, as Nelson left the game with a high ankle sprain in the first half and didn't return. In the third quarter, Singleton cramped badly, which affected his play for the remainder of the game. That left Steven Rivers as Wolfolk's go-to target as he caught 10 passes for 132 yards.
“We had three linemen to start the year,” Wolfolk said. “We had to get two guys to come on board with us, so the way our season was supposed to go and the way it went were two different things and I'm proud we made it to this point.”
Continuing a postseason trend, the Rams started sluggishly. However, after entering the half trailing 12-2, Wolfolk connected with speedster Tevin Singleton for a 40-yard touchdown that pulled the Rams within two. After another Northwest touchdown, Suitland answered when Wolfolk found Darryl Jasper from 4 yards out to make it 20-16, but that's as close as the Rams would come. On Suitland's next drive Wolfolk's fourth-down attempt with 4:46 to play, intended for Jasper, sailed high.
“I think our team thought that since we came out scoring in the second half and got one stop that the game was just going to fall into our hands,” Wolfolk said. “And most of us didn't realize that it was the state championship and they were playing as hard as they could, too.”
Despite the loss, the Rams' 2013 superlatives are impressive. Nine times this season Suitland allowed seven points or fewer. Only three times did the Rams allow more than 20. They finished with 474 points scored. On this night, however, Suitland was presented with one too many obstacles to overcome.
“I'm hurt that we lost, but I'm still grasping the whole concept that we just played in a state championship game,” said linebacker Anthony Jackson, who led the team with eight tackles. “I'm proud of everybody. We worked so hard this entire year, we just fell a little short.”