For Miami Columbus, a sigh of relief.
For the Belen Jesuit faithful, more frustration.
That was the final epitaph laid down before an estimated crowd of 7,000 at FIU on Friday night as the Explorers survived a frustrating first three quarters to pull away in the fourth and defeat Belen 27-7.
And with that, Columbus has now bested its rival 10 consecutive years (the first four were Kickoff Classics), but not before the Wolverines battled them tough for three quarters, trailing 12-7 after three quarters.
“We didn’t really play smart tonight and played uncharacteristic Columbus football,” said coach Chris Merritt. “We just didn’t play smart at times and kept that other team in the ball game. We kept their drives going, we took away big plays that we made on idiotic stuff and obviously we struggled with our kicking game.”
Merritt was referring to a handful of Columbus personal fouls that either kept Belen drives going or twarted his own. He also referred to a kicking game that saw Columbus’ Joey Tolgessi miss three field goals, including a 22-yard chip shot and a 33-yarder in the third quarter that ended a pair of Explorer drives deep in Wolverine territory keeping their deficit at five.
Columbus grabbed a 6-0 first quarter lead when running back Andres Fernandez took a handoff, pulled up and fired a strike to Austin Maloney for a 35-yard halfback option pass score. Columbus was called for a personal foul on the play making Tolgessi’s extra point 35 yards out — which he missed. That was the start of Merritt’s frustrations for the evening.
Belen answered Columbus’ score with its only impressive drive of the night as the Wolverines went 80 yards in 10 plays, the payoff score coming when quarterback Danny Hernandez lobbed a high pass to the corner of the end zone that 6-foot, 5-inch wide receiver and UConn committ Frank Battle went up and grabbed for a 10-yard touchdown, and a 7-6 Belen lead.
The Explorers then answered Belen’s score with another score of their own when quarterback Tucker Beirne, who enjoyed an excellent night completing 16-of-22 passes for 140 yards, led his team downfield on a 69-yard, 10-play drive, hitting Ivan Smith for a 9-yard score with 3:44 left in the first half. A failed two-point attempt left it 12-7.
The third quarter was Columbus’ exercise in frustration as Belen played giveaway twice. First, when punter Fernando Pujals dropped a snap inside his own 10 setting Columbus up at the eight, followed by a Trajan Bandy interception that set his team up at the Belen 20. But Tolgessi’s missed field goals meant no points.
Thanks to a stout Columbus defense which allowed Belen just one first down in the second half until there were just two minutes left, the Explorers kept getting good field position and finally opened up some space when they went 46 yards in eight plays with E.J. Donaldson scoring from 5 yards out with 9:35 left in the game to make it 20-7 following a two-point conversion.
Maloney then put things away for the Explorers when he took a Belen punt back 57 yards for a touchdown to complete the scoring.
“We wanted to take advantage of them playing off in man coverage,” said Beirne referring to his many short-hitch passes that allowed him to move down field slowly most of the night. “It may look like I had a good game, but in my eyes I didn’t have that great of game. I feel I can play at a much higher level and I will do that next week because we’re going to need to play better.”
Indeed as the Explorers will face a huge showdown game with Coral Gables in what could easily decide the district title.
“We hung in there for a long time but we just couldn’t get anything going on offense and eventually that allowed them to pull away in the end,” said Belen coach Rich Stewart. “You’ve got to give credit to Columbus though as well, they’ve got a great team and a tough defense that it’s tough to move on and we found that out tonight.”
BELEN JESUIT 7
|COL||6||6||0||15 — 27|
|BEL||0||7||0||0 — 7|
COL - Maloney 35 pass from Fernandez (kick failed)
BEL - Battle 12 pass from Hernandez (Ramirez kick)
COL - Smith 9 pass from Beirne (pass failed)
COL - Donaldson 5 run (Donaldson run)
COL - Maloney 57 punt return (Tolgessi kick)