By CHRIS McMANES — Instead of receiving presents on his 17th birthday, Gonzaga quarterback Caleb Williams was presenting them. He held the best until the very end.
Williams found John Marshall deep in the back of the end zone on the final play to rally the Eagles to a wild 46-43 victory over DeMatha on Nov. 18.
The Hail Mary pass, before a standing-room-only crowd at Catholic University, gave Gonzaga the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference Capital Division championship. More than an hour after the frenetic finish, the Eagles and their fans were still celebrating.
“This is the biggest thrill of my life,” Gonzaga wide receiver and Wisconsin recruit Dean Engram said. “I can’t even put into words how I feel. A lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of bonds I created at Gonzaga. I’m just glad it went out the right way.”
Williams struggled at times but was clearly the best player on the field. The sophomore accounted for all seven of the Eagles’ touchdowns and produced 466 yards of total offense.
His counterpart, DeMatha senior Eric Najarian, was brilliant under the Cardinal Stadium lights. He completed 15 of 21 passes for a career-high 222 yards and three touchdowns. He led two scoring drives of 80 yards or more and had the Stags in good position to win, leading 36-21 with 7:47 remaining.
“Offensively, we were in a pretty good flow,” Najarian said. “We moved the ball pretty well all game but just couldn’t get it done in the end.”
Outside of what Najarian described as a “quiet” DeMatha locker room, stunned disbelief filled the air. Players filed out still wearing their uniforms, 13 seniors for the last time.
“I’ve never been through something like this,” Stags coach Elijah Brooks said. “If you coach long enough, I guess you’re going to experience it. This is going to take a little bit of time to get over, but I’m really proud of how my team played all year.”
The Eagles (9-3), who came into the game No. 2 in The Washington Post Top 20, defeated the top-ranked team two weeks in a row. They won 24-14 at St. John’s in the semifinals. When the final rankings are released, Gonzaga will likely be No. 1.
The final 48 seconds of the contest featured three touchdowns and three lead changes. Trailing 36-33 and facing a third down and 34 from his own 39, Williams completed a 50-yard bomb to senior Sam Sweeney and moved the ball to the DeMatha 11.
Williams found Sweeney two plays later for a touchdown over the middle with 29 seconds to go. The Eagles were called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play, forcing senior Marco Kemp to kick off from the 25.
Dominic Logan-Nealy took the bouncing kick at his own 23 and motored toward the right side of the field. After escaping the initial wave of would-be tacklers and getting some good blocks, he sped down the sideline. He broke a tackle on the Gonzaga 16 and scooted into the end zone.
DeMarcco Hellams, DeMatha’s triple-threat performer, said his squad remained confident after giving up the lead for the first time.
“We just decided to come together as a team. The game wasn’t over until there were four zeroes on the clock,” said Hellams, a senior who has committed to Alabama. “Domo is a senior, and as a playmaker, he made a play for us.”
Several Stags rushed past their Seton High School cheerleaders to celebrate with the DeMatha student section. Fifteen seconds remained, and the Stags led, 43-40. It appeared as if Logan-Nealy’s final game would end in triumph.
Not so fast.
A five-yard penalty on DeMatha pushed Joey Hood’s kickoff back to the 35. Engram returned it 27 yards to give the Eagles good field position on their own 34. They had 10 seconds, no timeouts and 66 yards to go to complete what appeared just a short time earlier to be an improbable victory.
Engram continued setting the table by grabbing a 13-yard pass from Williams and running out of bounds to stop the clock.
Williams, in shotgun formation, took the final snap from his 47 with four seconds left. His offensive linemen gave him plenty of time against the Stags’ three-man rush. He moved around a little before launching a high and tight spiral toward a mass of humanity jockeying for position in the north end zone. The pass traveled more than 65 yards in the air.
“We knew what was coming,” Hellams said. “They had no timeouts left. … Caleb threw a great ball.”
DeMatha safety Nick Cross (Florida State) jumped while backpedaling. The ball sailed over his outstretched arm. Marshall swooped in from the left side with Hellams behind him, leaped and gathered the ball into his chest. Touchdown!
“The play was Hail Mary, and I was basically the rebounder to catch a tip or a deflection,” said Engram, a son of 14-year NFL veteran and Baltimore Ravens wide receivers coach Bobby Engram. “So, I didn’t have to clearly catch it, with the jumpers in the back.
“As soon as the ball touched [Marshall’s] hands, I knew he caught it. I’ve got faith in John. I celebrated as soon as he caught the ball.”
Brooks saw the play clearly from his spot on the sideline.
“I knew it was caught,” he said. “I was just hoping he was out of bounds.”
Marshall, one of Gonzaga’s 19 seniors, is an outstanding pass catcher and student. He’s heading to the U.S. Naval Academy.
“He’s a great wide receiver, an even better person,” Engram said. “I’m just happy for this team. All the work that we put in has paid off.”
Hellams had another terrific game for the Stags. A week after scoring twice, intercepting two passes and blocking a punt, the free safety gave DeMatha a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter by catching a 23-yard pass from Najarian. Hellams stymied Gonzaga’s final drive of the half by intercepting Williams on the Stags’ 5.
DeMatha took a 26-14 lead into halftime. Brooks knew the early 20-point bulge wouldn’t hold.
“We told the guys it was going to go down to the stretch,” he said. “Us and Gonzaga, we’ve battled for ages, and it’s never easy. So, we knew they were going to go on their run. We knew it was going to come down to the end. It just didn’t work out this time.”
The Eagles, who began the season 6-0 and then lost three of four, marched 87 yards and scored on a short reverse pass from Marshall to a wide-open Williams. The score brought Gonzaga to within 26-21 with 2:41 to go in the third quarter.
The Stags answered on their ensuing possession with an 86-yard touchdown drive. Najarian, from a yard out, threw the ball perfectly for Hellams to beat double coverage and catch the ball at its highest point.
Following a three-and-out highlighted by DeMatha sophomore Greg Penn’s sack, the Stags got the ball back and increased their cushion to 36-21 on Hood’s 24-yard field goal. The senior kicking specialist put another kickoff into the end zone, automatically giving the Eagles the ball on the 20.
Williams then completed passes of 15, 12 and 19 yards during an 80-yard downfield march. He used his legs and daylight-creating blocking by his offensive line to punctuate the drive with a 25-yard rushing TD. He beat the DeMatha blitz by running up the middle and, with no one on the second level to stop him, ran along the right rail to pay dirt.
Hellams intercepted Williams’ two-point conversion attempt to keep it a two-score game. Leading 36-27 with 5:46 left, things looked good for the Stags. Their fortunes quickly changed.
One play after Najarian fell on a Sieh Bangura fumble, the Eagles regained possession when senior Aaron Davis recovered a Marshawn Lloyd bobble on the DeMatha 31. It was the only blemish on Lloyd’s night.
The junior from Middletown, Del., scored the Stags’ first TD on a 44-yard dime-stopping run and finished with 31 carries for a career-best 160 rushing yards. His previous high of 154 yards came in DeMatha’s 27-21 win over Gonzaga in the regular season.
Four plays after getting the ball, Williams ran to the right for a 21-yard score. With 3:03 to play and Kemp’s missed extra point, the Eagles trailed by just 36-33.
“We had our chances to close out the game,” Brooks said. “Had a turnover, had some breakdowns defensively. We allowed a good team to stay around. This is what happens. So, all credit goes to Gonzaga for a heck of a game.”
The Eagles used all three of their timeouts on the Stags’ next drive and got the clock to stop on a third-down incompletion. Engram returned Hood’s 36-yard punt five yards to give Gonzaga possession on their 32 at the 1:47 mark. Williams ran for 15 yards on first down and then completed a 15-yard strike to sophomore Aaron Turner to move the ball to the DeMatha 37.
An Eagles’ pass interference penalty and sack by Stags defensive end Dominique Perry pushed them back to their own 47. On the next play, Williams completed the 50-yarder along the right sideline to Sweeney.
In the final 29 seconds, Gonzaga went up for the first time, lost the lead on Logan-Nealy’s kick return and then saw Williams conclude one of the greatest performances in Catholic league history. His fellow students were so intent on getting to the field, they left a large section of railing mangled.
Williams, the WCAC Offensive Player of the Year and likely first-team All-Met, accounted for all the Eagles’ touchdowns (three running, three passing, one receiving).
“He’s a great player,” Brooks said of the 6-foot, 190-pounder.
With the victory, Gonzaga captured its first WCAC football championship in 16 years. Christian Swezey, a 1990 Gonzaga graduate and former Washington Post sports writer, pointed out that DeMatha has won “like eight in that span.”
He was close. The Stags have captured 10 titles since 2002 and 24 stretching back to the Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference. It was little consolation.
“My mindset from here is just to try to get this game out of my memory,” Hellams said. “I committed [to Alabama] before the season … just to focus my whole year on getting a championship for this team. I’m sorry I couldn’t get it done.”
The game, in which defense appeared to be optional, was the highest scoring championship in WCAC history. The previous high (65 points) came in DeMatha’s 48-17 win over Good Counsel at the University of Maryland in 2015.
On Sunday, the Stags only trailed the Eagles for 14 seconds. Despite the miracle finish, Brooks was proud of his club.
“The entire team played well,” he said. “DeMarcco stepped up and had some big plays offensively, defensively. I’m pleased with everybody’s effort. We just didn’t execute when we needed to.”
Hellams probably summed it up best: “At the end of the day, they just made more plays than we did.”
DeMatha’s senior class won WCAC championships as freshmen and sophomores. The team slumped to a 6-5 mark last season and lost in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s squad, after a season-opening 38-0 loss to national power St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., won six straight.
Brooks said he feels “really bad” for his seniors, who went 12-0 in 2016 and finished No. 1 in the area. Individually, Cross wrapped up his career as an All-American. Hellams, who caught 11 touchdowns and had nine interceptions in 2018, will likely follow.
“I had a great group of seniors,” Brooks said. “They did everything that we asked them to do. They played their hearts out every game. … This is tough, but if you live long enough, you’re going to have days like this.”
The multi-talented Williams has been targeted by major college recruiters since his successful debut as a freshman. He didn’t have his most accurate day passing Sunday (14 of 28 for 360 yards) but did complete five passes of at least 37 yards. He also rushed 18 times for 106 yards.
“Caleb is the No. 1 quarterback in the nation,” Engram said. “That’s it.”
The following DeMatha players garnered first team All-WCAC honors: Offensive lineman Dwayne Allick; running back Marshawn Lloyd; wide receiver Jermaine Johnson; linebacker Greg Penn; kicker Joey Hood; and defensive backs Nick Cross, DeMarcco Hellams and Josh Wallace.
Offensive lineman Khaydon Brooks was named to the second team along with defensive linemen Coziah Izzard and Dominique Perry; linebacker Hezekiah Faison; and defensive back Dominic Logan-Nealy.
Quarterback Eric Najarian; running back Da’Jon Butler; wide receiver Kaden Prather; and defensive linemen Melteon Davis and Ian Froble were named honorable mention.
In the first WCAC Metro Division championship Sunday afternoon, also on Catholic University’s Northeast Washington campus, St. Mary’s Ryken improved to 10-2 with a 43-6 thrashing of O’Connell (3-9).
After a season-opening loss, St. Mary’s won seven in a row and 10 of its final 11. The Leonardtown school beat Archbishop Carroll in the semifinals, 48-0. Over the past two seasons, the Knights are 19-3. O’Connell advanced with a 35-33 upset of top-seeded Paul VI.
This was the first year the WCAC had two tiers of competition. A similar concept might stretch to other league sports. In football, the WCAC will evaluate whether to switch schools in each five-team division every two years.
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) has covered DeMatha football since 2015. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisMcManes1.